A Past Sustainability Leader, Butte College is First to Go Grid Positive

Millions in Savings Projected for California Community College

07-26-2011 // Max Greenberg
Solar panels over landscaping at Butte College

Butte College counts two superstar NFL players among its former students, but that’s not why National Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups have taken a special interest in the Oroville, CA, community college.

Located on a 928-acre wildlife refuge, Butte recently became the first college in the U.S. to go completely "grid positive," meaning it generates more electricity (from its on-campus solar array) than it uses, a stated goal since at least early 2004.

The school’s 25,000 total solar panels, whose construction served as a hands-on learning experience for participants in its solar training program, are projected to save Butte between $50 million and $75 million over the next 15 years “by eliminating its electricity bill, getting paid for excess electricity production, and avoiding future electricity rate increases.” The school hopes to redirect a large portion of these savings into curriculum development and new student programs.

State Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom hailed the achievement as a bellwether for the state’s broader sustainability goals.

“As we seek to make renewable energy sources a larger part of California’s overall energy portfolio, Butte College serves as a model, showing the way toward a clean energy future, ” Newsom said.

That future may be closer than you think. According to a 2008 Pew analysis (PDF), California boasted more clean energy jobs in 2007 than any other state, and its solar capacity is especially strong. A 2008 NWF energy factsheet reported that devoting a single square mile in California to solar power could provide enough electricity for about 1,600 households each year. The school’s panels are expected to generate over 6.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually – enough to power more than 900 average-sized homes.

A Green Past and Present

Solar panels over parking at Butte College

“Butte College has had a longstanding commitment to sustainability,” explained Dr. Diana Van Der Ploeg, Butte College president. “Achieving grid-positive status marks the culmination of years of effort to build Butte College’s supply of solar power and to improve energy efficiency on campus.”

Butte lays claim to years’ worth of honors to demonstrate that commitment. A former Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Campus Sustainability Leadership Award winner, the school has also won NWF’s ‘Chill Out’ grand prize for its carbon neutrality and energy usage goals, Sustainability Studies certificate program and recycling initiatives, and was featured in the Campus Report Card, a project by NWF and Princeton Survey Research Associates International to review trends and new developments in environmental performance and sustainability on college campuses. In the latter report, Butte was recognized for high marks in energy efficiency, recycling and grounds management.

According to the school, Butte College’s overall usage per square foot of electricity and natural gas decreased 33 percent due to HVAC upgrades and lighting retrofits from 2002 to 2006. At that time, a one megawatt solar array provided 28 percent of the college’s electricity.

In addition to recent energy overhauls, the college runs one of the state’s largest transportation systems, with three natural gas and 10 biodiesel buses available for student transit. The buses log over 250,000 miles each year and keep and keep an estimated 1,000 cars off the roads each day when school is in session. A ride sharing program for students, faculty and staff boasts nearly 700 registrants and has saved an estimated 247,000 pounds of vehicle emissions to date by consolidating cars.

Looking to the Future

Solar panels over parking at Butte College

All of Butte’s progress is in keeping with another, even more ambitious goal: President Diana Van Der Ploeg has pledged the college will be carbon neutral by 2015. When it comes to sustainability, the college is unabashedly forward-looking.

In an interview with NWF’s Campus Ecology team last summer, Director of Facilities Planning and Management Mike Miller said Butte College takes a “long view” on energy efficiency, projecting 20-30 years into the future to determine which utility choices might save the most money.

“That is what sold all three phases of solar,” said Miller. “California schools are impacted with budget cuts [but] at Butte we haven’t had to have any layoffs [in 2010].”

Miller estimated $150 million saved by the school by the 30-year-mark of their solar plan.

The Butte Difference

With so many schools large and small striving toward improved sustainability, what makes Butte College special enough to be the first to achieve grid positivity? According to Director of Public Relations and Marketing Lisa DeLaby, the answer lies partly in the wildlife refuge campus itself, which hosts educational hikes and community awareness activities, and how it inspires “pretty much everyone on campus” to back conservation in a more concrete way.

“You see wildlife every day, it’s gorgeous every day…and when you see the solar arrays, you get a good feeling,” DeLaby said.


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