First College in US Generates Income Selling Solar to the Grid

Butte College, near Sacramento, California is the first college in the US to be ‘grid positive’ – it generates more electricity than it needs from its solar arrays and thus can deliver energy to the electric grid, making a tidy profit.

Butte College, located 75 miles from Sacramento and resting on a 928-acre wildlife refuge, will see significant cost savings from its solar arrays. The college estimates it will save $50 million – $75 million over 15 years, even after accounting for project costs and interest. 

The savings come from eliminating the college’s electricity bill, getting paid for excess electricity production, and avoiding future electricity rate increases. These savings can be used to improve student offerings and increase enrollment, the school says.

The college installed 25,000 solar panels, which will generate over 6.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year – enough to power over 9,200 average-sized homes, or the equivalent of removing 6,000 passenger cars from the roadways.

"I’ve asked community colleges to become more entrepreneurial and seek out new and innovative ways to generate revenue and to cut operating costs," says California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott. "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."

With 21,000 students, the college is unique among California Community Colleges because it operates as a self-contained city. It has its own water system, maintains its own sewage treatment facility, and operates the largest community college transportation system in California. The college implemented its first solar energy project in 2005 and its second in 2008.

College president Diana Van Der Ploeg credits its sustainable transformation to student engagement at the college and in the community. She also notes the college is focused on infusing sustainability into the curriculum, workforce development focused on green jobs, LEED certified buildings, and sustainable land use management.

Butte College has earned a number of national awards for sustainability leadership including the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) 2009 Campus Leadership Award and a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Power Partnership Award. 

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