In this March 9, 2019, file photo, solar panels are seen at a former landfill site next to the local Tremont town office. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Environmentalists are criticizing Bowdoin College’s solar panel expansion at Brunswick Landing that could harm a rare coastal grassland.

While Brunswick’s planning board last week approved the project that will bring Bowdoin closer to its goal of completely offsetting college electricity use with renewable energy, two board board members voted against the project because it might potentially endanger the rare grassland with which it shares the property, The Times Record reported.

The 18,000-panel solar array will stretch across 20 acres of the college’s 115-acre parcel at Brunswick Landing, expanding on a three-acre, 2,150-panel array built in 2014. But the Little Bluestem-Blueberry Sandplain Grassland it will be built on is one of just four such identified sites in the state that the Maine Natural Areas Program classified as “critically imperiled” due to how rare it is.

The low-lying grassy habitat is home to two species of “special concern,” according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife: the prairie warbler and eastern towhee. A black and white warbler, also of “special concern,” was documented using the forest edges within the parcel.

The grassland needs to be maintained by prescribed burns that Kristen Puryear, an ecologist with the Maine Natural Areas Program, said in a letter to Brunswick town officials is in conflict with the construction of the solar array.

Bowdoin and its project partner, Sol Systems, have said that the solar panels will be installed to avoid the grasses and Sol officials will conduct an initial controlled burn to clear the site prior to construction, according to The Times Record.

The solar panels are also taller to accommodate less frequent mowing, though the project maintenance will involve mowing the land twice per year, more than Puryear’s recommendation of just one annual mowing.

Matt Orlando, Bowdoin’s senior vice president for finance and administration, told The Times Record that the project goes beyond just Bowdoin and exemplifies what is required to meet Maine’s aggressive renewable energy goals of switching to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2045.