Butte College adds distinction as first U.S. campus to go grid-positive to its already innovative focus on sustainability
A mere six years after installing the first solar panels on campus, Butte College recently became the first college campus in the United States to generate more power than it uses with the completion of a three-phase clean-energy project.
“The first two phases installed about 10,000 solar panels,” said Michael Miller, director of facilities planning and management at Butte. “Phase III added another 15,000 panels. Now we have a total of 4.66 megawatts of solar capability, meaning we’ll be able to provide about 102 percent of all the college-owned property with clean power.”
Having the college’s power produced by solar rather than traditional methods results in a reduction of 6.9 million pounds of carbon-monoxide emissions, the equivalent of removing more than 600 cars from roads, Miller said. In addition to decreasing pollution, Miller said the economic impact will be enormous.
“We’ve taken a really conservative financial approach to this,” Miller explained. “It has to make financial sense because we’re using taxpayer dollars. So basically, we started with a $1.3 million annual utility budget, took that and instead of paying for electricity bought the solar panels. We’re going to see a huge savings over time; coupled with the fact that energy costs always go up, we’re looking at saving the college and the taxpayers between $100 and $150 million in the next 30 years.”
Miller said the college first started looking into alternative energy sources in 2003, with the first solar panels going up in 2005. With each phase, the scope of the effort grew more ambitious and more refined: “For the last two phases we used mostly Mitsubishi panels because they’re so reliable. There’s only been one failure of one panel in the U.S.
“During Phase II, we put one array on a carport for shade,” Miller said. “For Phase III, except for a few small arrays on the ground, all of the arrays are on shade structures. So we’re covering parking areas, walkways, outdoor gathering spaces, picnic areas and spectator areas down at the playing fields. Phase III included 55 different structures, and to have protection from the elements is a great thing. One area we really focused on was our bus-loading zone for our student transportation system. Now we have rain-tight covers with solar panels on that area.”
Miller noted that Butte’s declaration of energy independence is part of a long history of dedication to green issues.
“The college has been here over 40 years,” he said, “and the main campus is on a designated wildlife refuge, so we’ve always had an environmental awareness in the campus community.”
Butte College has added six buildings to campus in the past decade. The last two—the arts and student and administrative services buildings—are LEED-certified gold, the second-highest certification given to sustainable buildings by the U.S. Green Building Council; platinum certification is the highest.
“What we found is it didn’t really increase our cost for construction because we were already setting high energy-efficiency standards and user-friendly space standards, so we had great natural lighting and a focus on conservation of energy and water use from the start,” Miller said of the LEED standards.
Now that the power infrastructure is built, Miller said, the college will shift its focus to running it. “We’re going to try to manage all this big utility we’ve built, and keep working on energy conservation,” he offered. “The trend is that every year the equipment all of us buy, from dishwashers to lights to computers, uses less and less electricity to do the same thing. On average, that’s about a 1.6-percent-per-year increase in energy efficiency.
“We’ve implemented a lot of energy-efficiency projects along the way. It’s actually less expensive to do energy conservation than generation by a fairly concise factor. So as the school grows, we should be able to meet the needs of the future for a long time.”
Other sustainability efforts at Butte include a ride-share program called Zimride—for students, faculty and staff—and organic-farming areas. Furthermore, Butte has developed new curriculum to best prepare students for emerging industries based around clean energy and sustainability issues. These include a 17-unit Sustainability Studies Certificate Program and a Clean Energy Workforce Training Program. Miller said seven students who completed the training program were hired for Phase III of Butte’s solar project.
“In the spring of 2007, I created a new course titled ‘Our Sustainable Future’ [Sociology 5], a survey course on sustainability as a social movement,” explained Melinda Riley, architect of the Sustainability Studies program and co-chair of Butte’s Sustainability Steering Committee, which coordinates the college’s overall sustainability effort. “I was leading faculty workshops at the time helping others to infuse sustainability issues into their existing curriculum.”
“Quickly, a core group of faculty emerged at Butte who were very interested in promoting this new trend in higher education,” Riley said. “I proposed creating a course of study for students that would allow them to become literate in all aspects of the sustainability ‘paradigm.’ Mid-semester, this core group each committed to writing a new course within their discipline that would be part of the certificate.
“As far as what people can do with this certificate, the answer is everything,” said Riley, who is now exploring the viability of an associate’s degree in sustainability. “Future employers of all types are going to be searching out people with the type of knowledge students in this program are gaining. This knowledge will not only give them an advantage in any job market, it will allow them to live as better and more productive citizens in the new political, social, cultural and economic landscape of the 21st century.”
“The whole green jobs initiatives is evolving rapidly,” Miller concurred, adding that green building projects are also a boon to those with more traditional skills, such as electricians, carpenters, steel workers and welders. “We have some excellent instructors to teach the next generation of workers and to retrain workers, which is really important to this economy,” he said.
“We’ve got all these great new buildings and a really sustainable campus. We have our own water and wastewater system, and now our own electrical generation system. It’s a great instructional tool. It shows students, visitors and the general public what can be done on a really fiscally sound basis.
“It’s a good lesson a lot of government institutions could learn today,” added Miller.