Butte College Going Carbon Neutral without the Credits

In 2005 Butte College flipped the switch and turned its campus on to solar power; just one in a series of efforts that the community college of 20,500 students has undertaken to be carbon neutral by 2015 (without relying on carbon offsets or credits, no less). Butte represents a growing number of smaller school and community colleges that are embracing going green along with larger and wealthier universities.

Since 2002 the campus has been involved in an $85 million upgrade project and is currently occupied with improving its HVAC facilities and replacing inefficient lighting structures. Over a four-year period Butte managed to cut its natural gas and electricity usage by a third, aided primarily by its one megawatt solar photovoltaic system.

Nearly four acres of the campus are covered by 5,700 solar panels, the second largest solar array owned by a community college in the nation, which generate 1.6 million kilowatts per hour, and provide 28% of Butte’s electricity annually. Mike Miller, director of Facilities Planning and Management, says that the plant saves an average of $300,000 annually, as well as 2.3 million pounds of carbon dioxide. Funding for the system came in part from Pacific Gas and Energy (PG&E), which provided $3.7 million in rebates from its customer incentive program.

Plans are already in place to upgrade to a four MW photovoltaic system, which will eventually account for 100 percent of the college’s electricity use. Board approval was secured on September 10, 2008, to go ahead with the expansion of the array.

“Over 800 panels will be added over the next six months,” says Miller. “We are funding it by borrowing $3.8 million at good interest over the next twenty years and making the down payment with Measure A bonds.” Since 2001, these state-given incentives have helped colleges build or upgrade existing solar facilities to make California campuses, such as Cabrillo College, Diablo Valley College and others, more energy efficient. “We’ll also receive about $1.7 million in California rebates, like those we got initially. By the end of the expansion we’ll be creating 50 percent of our campus energy onsite.”

Aside from the solar array, Butte boasts the largest community college-based transportation system in California with 10 biodiesel and three natural gas busses, saving about 905 metric tons in carbon dioxide emissions and taking more than an estimated 1,000 cars off the road each day. The college has plans to purchase additional hybrid busses to expand its fleet.

Not letting its operations outshine curriculum, Butte is also expanding the course catalog to include certificate programs in sustainability theory, hybrid/alternative fuel auto technology, energy assessment training, and environmental restoration. New associate degree programs are being planned for construction management and land use/planning, both with a focus on sustainability in the fields, and an additional associate’s degree in sustainability studies is expected to be available by the spring semester of 2009.

Though not alone among community colleges, Butte stands out for the sheer weight of its programs, its ambitious carbon-neutrality deadline, and its dedication to powering the entire campus with onsite renewable energy. Mimi Riley, a faculty advisor to the college’s Sustainability Steering Committee, says the goal is “to create a culture of sustainability on campus, but also to create practices and to model them in our buildings and our purchases.” As Butte’s new solar array is brought online and the college continues to work towards its neutrality goal, other schools will be watching this particular model with interest.

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