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Investing in solar energy as a financial strategy

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Butte College in California expects to sell part of its surplus solar energy back to the community.

Click on image to see more photos.

Installing solar panel farms to capture enough energy to fuel a campus and perhaps sell excess power to utilities is catching the interest of many community colleges, especially in states such as California.

Several colleges have already installed or have begun to build such solar projects as ways to cut their energy costs and develop a new source of revenue. The latter has been an attractive selling point on such projects, but for most colleges it is too soon to tell whether it will happen. 

Butte College in California is on the cusp of doing so, and even touts itself as the “first grid-positive community college in the nation.” The college plans to sell about 2 percent of the energy produced by its 25,000 solar panels.

Those revenues, along with the elimination of electricity bills and future rate increases, are expected to save Butte $50 million to $75 million over the next 15 years—even after accounting for project costs and interest.

Funding for the project came from several sources, including rebates, federal Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, bank financing, and the college’s reserve funds (see video, below). Butte owns the system and will pay back the bonds and loans from the money it had been using to buy electricity.

Financing for renewable energy projects

The solar panels—which also provide shade for the campus—are expected to generate more than 6.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, enough to power more than 941 average-sized homes, said Lisa DeLaby, Butte's public relations and marketing director. The college began installing the system in 2005 and completed it this year, she said. One last section is being tested by Pacific Gas & Electric before it will be connected to the grid.

“Butte College has had a longstanding commitment to sustainability,” said Diana Van Der Ploeg, president of the college. “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.” 

Carbon footprint

Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in Maryland uses solar panels on top of a series of carports to generate about 5 percent of its energy needs, said Maurice Chaput, executive director of administrative services at AACC.

The system, which began operating in April 2010, is owned, operated, and maintained by Washington Gas Energy Services. AACC agreed to buy power generated by the system for the next 15 years at current rates.

While the system only saves the college about $35,000 a year in energy costs, Chaput said, it is significantly reducing the college’s carbon footprint—by 306 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to 712 barrels of oil.

“We strive to be as green as we can, but it also has to be economically feasible,” Chaput said. AACC would not have been able to afford the system if it hadn’t received a $750,000 federal stimulus grant, along with federal and state energy credits.

Crucial partnerships

In Michigan, Monroe County Community College’s (MCCC) ongoing partnership with Detroit Edison, a subsidiary of DTE Energy, the largest employer in the county, was critical to the development of the college’s solar project, said MCCC President David Nixon.

Resources on solar energy from AACC's Sustainability Education and Economic Development Center

The company is required to generate 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015 and was having trouble finding a property owner willing to host a large solar installation, said Nixon. MCCC had plenty of land available, so the college turned out to be a good fit for the facility, which is part of DTE’s $100-million SolarCurrents project.

Construction on the 500-kilowatt system was completed last February. DTE spent $3 million on the project and pays the college $20,000 a year to rent a three-acre piece of land close to a career and technology center under construction at MCCC.

The energy produced by the solar array goes into the grid to provide power for the community, as well as the college. The next step, Nixon said, will be the construction of a large battery system to store solar-generated energy and release it into the grid when the sun isn’t shining.

Among other community colleges with solar energy systems:

  • Glendale Community College (GCC) in California partnered with Glendale Water & Power and Chevron Energy Solutions in 2008 to develop a parking structure on campus with 872 solar panels on the roof. The 262-kilowatt system supplies about 10 percent of the energy used by the college, said Ron Nakasone, GCC’s vice president for administrative services. The city is responsible for maintenance and upkeep of the solar array and sells the energy back to the college at the same price as conventional power. But the solar-generated energy is not included in the calculation of peak charges, which has reduced the energy costs for the college’s main campus from about $2 million to $1.6 million a year.
  • In North Carolina, Haywood Community College (HCC) plans to complete construction of a solar-powered creative arts building in May 2012, reported HCC President Rose Johnson. The building, funded with a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters, incorporates a broad array of green features, as well as rooftop solar panels to generate electricity and solar thermal systems for hot water, heat, and air conditioning.
  • Mission College in California expects to save $8.5 million over the next 25 years with a 1.1 megawatt solar system developed in partnership with SunPower Corp. and the Gilbane construction company. The system, installed on a 1.5-acre parking canopy, is expected to fulfill a third of the college’s energy needs.
  • Mercer County Community College (MCC) in New Jersey and its community partners are developing a 43-acre solar farm, the largest college-based solar installation in the nation. Once completed, it is expected to produce 90 percent of the power needed by MCC’s West Windsor campus. The Mercer County Improvement Authority provided bond financing, and the county guaranteed the bonds, which means MCC didn't have to borrow any money for the project.

Not all community college-based solar energy projects have gone smoothly. An ambitious project spearheaded by the Los Angeles Community College District to generate solar, wind, and geothermal power for its nine colleges, has hit some major obstacles, which have been chronicled by the Los Angeles Times. Instead of saving the colleges millions of dollars as anticipated, the stalled project has cost taxpayers $10 million for systems that have not been completed. Among the problems cited by the paper: disputes with contractors, insufficient space for the planned solar panels and private investor financing deals that fell through.

Take advantage of rebates

Colleges considering solar systems should work closely with their college’s utility company, advised Butte's DeLaby.

“The coordination requirements for this kind of project are more complex than for normal construction projects,” she said.

Joseph Wiedman of the California-based Interstate Renewable Energy Council, said community colleges should “find a professional who can walk them through the RFP process and help them take advantage of state rebate programs.”

The biggest mistake institutions make is relying on an internal champion within the organization who fails to seek enough bids and doesn’t get the best price, Wiedman said. He recommended partnering with the city or county government for projects to aggregate megawatts across a larger area.

“You’ll get a much better deal,” he said, and the project could become profitable in seven years rather than 10 to 15.

Wiedman expects that colleges will consider getting involved with community renewable solar energy systems, which are just starting to be developed in places like California, Washington and Colorado, where state laws allow them. These systems, which are larger than conventional net metering systems, can serve a number of institutions, such as city or county governments.

Since they are located offsite, they would allow a college to use solar energy even if it doesn’t have the space for solar panels or doesn’t have enough sunlight, Wiedman said.

 

Below, officials from Butte College in California discuss the college's ambitious sustainability efforts, including its solar energy project.​

 

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