‘Grid-positive’ school has electricity to sell
It all started with a simple question at a Board of Trustees meeting in 2004.
Lou Checchi asked his Butte College colleagues, “Have we ever thought of solar for the college?”
Now, seven years later, the two-year school in Oroville, California is the first college in the country to produce more energy than it uses, effectively becoming grid positive.
With 25,000 solar panels mounted across the 928-acre campus, combined with other energy saving systems, the college estimates that it will save between $50 million and $75 million in utility costs over the next 15 years. To say nothing to the reduced carbon footprint of solar energy production.
“The history of our college is that we’ve always relied on the land around us,” said Diana Van Der Ploeg, who retired in June after seven years as president of the college. “We have our own water well, organic farm and sewage treatment system. You just have to take care of yourself out here. Putting in solar was just one more thing that just made sense for us.”
Butte College is located in California’s Central Valley in Butte County, about 65 miles north of Sacramento and midway between Oroville and Chico. The school offers more than 150 degrees and certificates, with the aim of preparing graduates for a global workforce, including pursuits in advanced energy. The current student population is about 14,000.
Cecchi’s question set in motion a swirl of actions that put Butte on the path toward energy independence. A three-phase solar plan was initiated, with the first phase accounting for 25 percent of the campus energy needs by 2005, the second phase increasing it to 48 percent and the third completing the job this year.
The solar installations – on buildings, above parking lots, along walkways—now generate 2 to 4 percent more electricity than the school needs, allowing it to sell energy back to the local power company.
The net cost of the solar installations is $27.3 million, achieved through financing that included tax revenue bonds, bank loans and money from the college’s reserve fund. Debt is scheduled to be retired by 2019 on phase one, by 2028 on phase two and by 2026 on phase three.
But then: Cost free energy!
“It sets the college up, that when everything is paid off, and what was once a $1.2 million electric bill has gone up to $2 million, the school will have that money to put back in the classroom,” said Van Der Ploeg.
Butte’s advanced energy strategy has brought an array of honors. They include the 2009 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Campus Leadership Award, the 2009 Environmental Protection Agency Green Power Partnership Award, the 2008 National Wildlife Association Campus Chill-Out Award and various LEED certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Van Der Ploeg was the driving force behind Butte’s solar surge, keeping the project moving along, pushing for creative financing. In time, the school’s sustainability efforts became a calling card to attract more student applications. Students attending now say they are proud of what the school is doing.
As for Van Der Plueg, she hasn’t abandoned the cause. She now lives in Estes Park, Colorado, 66 miles northwest of Denver. “I became so enamored with solar,” she said, “my house is now off the grid.”
See how energy efficient your school is and compare it to others using the College Sustainability Report Card.