Butte College, north of Sacramento, Calif. on a 928-acre wildlife refuge, has been recognized over the last few years as a national community college leader in sustainability. By May 2011, the college will move to the head of its class—as the only college in the nation that is grid positive—producing more clean energy from sustainable on-site solar power than it uses.

The college recently received approval from its Board of Trustees to complete its Phase III solar project, which adds approximately 15,000 solar photovoltaic panels—or 2.7 MW DC—to its current 1.85 MW or 10,000 solar panels, which will ultimately make the site the largest solar-producing college in the world. The system will total 4.55 MW DC of clean renewable--energy generation capability. The college will generate more than 6.38 million kilowatt-hours per year, which is enough electricity to power more than 9,200 average-sized homes.

“Once this solar project is completed, Butte College will provide enough clean renewable energy to cover all of our electricity needs and generate slightly more than we use, which will be a source of additional revenue for the college,” said Diana Van Der Ploeg, Butte College president. “Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. Being the first grid-positive community college in the country demonstrates our commitment to the sustainable practices we’re modeling for our students and our communities.”

Van Der Ploeg credits the college’s transformation to student engagement both at the college and in the community; infusion of sustainability into the curriculum; work force development focused on green jobs, LEED-certified buildings, and sustainable land-use management; and the operation of the largest community college student transportation system in California.

The new 15,000 solar panels will be placed atop rooftops, will create covered parking areas and walkways, and will be mounted on the ground. The total funding for the project is $17 million, of which $12.65 million is made possible by federal Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBS), which are low-interest loans that can be used for clean-energy projects. The college will fund the remainder, up to $4.35 million.
According to Miller, the resources to pay for all of the solar projects is the funding budgeted annually to purchase electricity from the grid, and for Phase III, almost $1 million in rebates from PG&E, the California Solar Initiative, and benefits from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act/Clean Renewable Energy Bonds allocations. The CREBS for the project were arranged and funded by Bank of America as part of its 10-year, $20 billion business initiative to address climate change.

“This solar project helps the college come close to being climate-neutral and allows the college to offer solar training classes in addition to reducing energy costs and generating revenue,” Van Der Ploeg said.