Getting to Grid Positive: What it Took and Why It’s Important

July 1, 2011

by Diana Van Der Ploeg, President of Butte College.  This blog article was originally published on the AASHE blog

My eight-year tenure as President of Butte College ends this week on an exciting note: Butte College is now the first college in the history of the U.S. to go grid positive, meaning that we will generate more power from onsite renewable energy than our campus consumes. We are, in effect, our own renewable power plant.

At Butte College – located in Oroville, California, about 75 miles from Sacramento – we began installing solar panels on campus several years ago, and we now have 25,000 of them. Thanks in part to a generally sunny climate in our part of California, our solar panels will generate a combined 6.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually. That’s enough to power over 900 homes or take over 600 cars off the road.Butte Solar

Our solar project was completed in three phases – the first concluded in 2005; the second in 2009; and the third this week. In order to get financing on the best possible terms, we relied on lease revenue bonds, where energy cost savings are used to satisfy the debt obligation, for phase one. We relied on bank financing for phase two. For phase three, the largest phase, we used a combination of federal Clean Renewable Energy Bonds and our own funds.

Because our solar panels will produce more electricity than we need, we’ll not only eliminate our utility bill, we’ll also be able to sell the excess electricity back to the power grid. Over time we will see substantial financial benefits – we estimate we could recoup as much as $50 million to $75 million over 15 years – that we can use to help improve academic offerings or expand student enrollment. At a time of tight budgets for states and colleges all over the country, finding innovative ways to save money wherever we can is crucial.

Yet these cost benefits are not the only, or even the primary, reason for our decision to pursue an aggressive renewable energy strategy. We believe that institutions of higher education have a particular responsibility to seize the mantle of environmental leadership. As educators, we are well positioned to demonstrate how we can better manage our use of the earth’s limited resources so that they’ll continue to be available for future generations and how we can reduce carbon emissions in the face of mounting evidence of the threat of global climate change.

When we boost our renewable energy portfolios, improve energy efficiency, reduce waste, recycle, and provide transportation alternatives to commuting by car, we serve as a model for our students and the broader communities we serve. We ask our students to carry that lesson with them after they graduate by signing a voluntary pledge to take the environment into account in their working lives and improve the environmental practices of the organizations where they work.

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