By the time you read this, Colby College should be tapping into the sunshine as its new solar farm goes into operation, the largest at any Maine college. But that’s not the only new green initiative on the Waterville campus, as we learned when we called up Mina Amundsen, Colby’s assistant vice president for facilities and campus planning.

Amundsen arrived at Colby in 2015, just in time to get in on the planning of the solar farm. “It is really cool to be in on the beginning stages of a project.” She’d been working at Cornell as the first the director of campus planning and then of capital budget before the move to Waterville. A trained architect, she’d also been a senior planner at Harvard. Colby already had a major sustainability feather in its cap, a biomass-fueled central steam plant that provides the heat for the campus. Colby adheres to a rule that the fuel comes from no farther than 50 miles from campus. And any waste from the plant? “We have a local organic farmer who takes the ash and puts it on his fields.” (That would be at Rainbow Valley Farm.)

SITE SPECIFIC: The college was considering two locations for siting the solar farm, including one that was off campus. Amundsen says an educational component factored into the decision to pick the spot just at the edge of the campus on marginal land (“we were very careful not to take up conservation land or farmland”). “It has really great teaching opportunities. There has been a lot of interest from the faculty and students.”

THE NUMBERS GAME: The array will provide 16 percent of Colby’s total demand for electricity and is the biggest solar array on a Maine campus – Bowdoin College in Brunswick laid claim to that title until Colby got into the solar farming business. When we talked, Colby had not yet flipped the switch fully on but was “in the testing and tweaking sort of phase.”

NEXT UP: Amundsen is also overseeing the design and construction of a 350,000-square foot athletic complex (with Maine’s first Olympic-sized pool, fitness center, indoor track, squash complex, hockey rink and atrium), which will be the largest project in Colby’s history and likely one of its greenest. “LEED silver is the minimum and we’re shooting for, LEED Gold.” It won’t open until 2020, but preparatory work is already underway. The baseball and softball fields were relocated and new fields built, with sustainability in mind, including using terracing to slow down and filter water flow and connecting the new athletic fields to the wooded trails around campus.

WALKABOUT: Those trails get major use, from the cross country teams running them for practice to professors using them to study birds and plants. The areas between fields and woods are being restored with native plants. “So the woods come right in and frame the new fields. The idea was to keep that setting as natural as possible.” That seems like nearly as much of a trend on campuses as solar farms, moving away from manicured lawns as flat as ironing boards. Amundsen agrees, and says it is an entirely positive one. “If you are a college in Maine, you have to have a landscape that is of Maine.”

MEADOWLANDS: She’s also working with landscape architects, soil specialists and builders to create wet and upland meadows around the new facilities. Is that like a wetland? No, Amundsen said, it’s more like they’re working with a wet area that’s already there from a pond, planting meadow grasses and plants that will thrive in wetter soils. “What we are doing is taking advantage of the landscape to tell the story of that water. If you capture the surface hydrology, you are allowing it to be in a more natural state.” The idea is to create a landscape that doesn’t need pesticides or fertilizers and that attracts pollinators and wildlife (Amundsen’s husband Ole is a former executive director of Maine Audubon). “Lawns don’t support much of anything.”

HOMECOMING: The decision to take a job at Colby was an easy one for the family, since Ole Amundsen went to Colby and they have family in Maine. Mina Amundsen grew up in India. “I grew up in very big cities, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta, and we moved around a lot when I was a kid so I love the fact that Waterville is a very small community.” And that her daughters, one in middle school, the other in high school, can bike and walk to school.

DOWNTOWN DREAMING: Which brings us to yet another Colby project, a new dorm in downtown Waterville that will hold 200 students and faculty and staff apartments, as well as retail space at ground level. It’s slated to open fall 2018. Amundsen isn’t overseeing the building directly, but in the overall scheme of college planning, it’s meant to provide a different kind of sustainability connection, revitalizing a downtown that has struggled but is bouncing back. “A strong Waterville is good for Colby,” Amundsen said.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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