California College Is First To Become Grid-Positive

A college in California made history this week by becoming the first college to produce more energy than it consumes. Butte College, located 75 miles northeast of Sacramento and near the city of Chico in northern California, not only produces its own clean energy, but also provides enough energy to power over 9,200 homes. A system of 25,000 solar panels installed around the campus on parking structures, buildings, and over covered walkways can contribute up to 6.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, an amount equivalent to removing 615 cars from the state’s congested freeway systems. The solar panels were installed in three phases, beginning in 2005.

Butte College, whose rural campus sits on a 928-acre wildlife refuge, is the first college in the United States to implement carbon positive strategies. Butte College President Dr. Diana Van Der Ploeg says that “Butte College has had a longstanding commitment to sustainability. 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.” Its mission to cut carbon emissions will also save the college between $50 million and $75 million over the next 15 years – an amount that does not include the $31.6 million cost to build its solar panels and the added savings of eliminating electricity bills and avoiding the rising cost of electricity in future bills. The institution says that it can use these savings to boost enrollment and improve student programs and activities.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott also lauds the college’s enormous efforts, saying, “I’ve asked community colleges to become more entrepreneurial and seek out new and innovative ways to generate revenue and to cut operating costs. Butte College dramatically accomplishes both of these goals by becoming grid positive.  Furthermore, this college’s solar arrays will train workers for jobs in the green energy field – an outcome that will help California’s economy and recovery.”

Committed to sustainability from the ground up, Butte College recycles a remarkable 75% of its waste, has the largest student transport system of any community college in the state, and has one LEED Gold Certified building, with another one pending Gold certification. It also operates as a sustainable microcosm of a city, operating its own water and sewage treatment systems. The college aims to educate its students and prepare them for green-collar jobs by offering a certificate program in sustainability studies and an environmental career program, which incorporate green ideas into classrooms, as well as presenting sustainability workshops designed to inform participants about the green workforce.

The forward-thinking community college was established in 1967 and has previously been recognized as a leader and innovator in sustainability – among its awards are the 2009 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Power Partnership Award and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) 2009 Campus Leadership Award. The college hosts an annual sustainability conference, inviting building companies, businesses and other colleges to collaborate on and discuss environmental issues and green practices.

California colleges and universities have frequently claimed top spots in nationwide sustainability rankings, proving that the state’s higher education institutions are leaders in a greener future for the nation. Stanford University and schools from the University of California (UC) system, which includes UCLA and UC Berkeley, and the California State University (CSU) system, including CSU Long Beach and CSU Fullerton, are consistently ranked among the nation’s greenest colleges. UC schools have adopted campus gardens, implemented campuswide bans of Styrofoam containers, brought organic and local food into student dining facilities, and use clean fuels for student buses. Schools across the state have installed solar panels and constructed LEED-certified buildings, and engage the student body by holding sustainability competitions in the dorms and offering sustainability courses and majors, while UC and CSU schools are enrolled in the California Climate Action Registry, which tracks and analyzes its members’ carbon emissions. 

Photo credit: Butte College Foundation

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