• Some of the solar arrays at Butte College are clearly visible in the aerial photograph.

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BUTTE VALLEY — Eight years ago, Lou Cecchi, a Butte College trustee, asked the question “Have we ever thought about solar?”

Now, the college has 25,000 solar panels, and on Wednesday it claimed the title of “the first college in United States history to become ”grid positive.””

“Grid positive” means it produces more electricity than it uses and so returns power to the electrical grid.

Cecchi, a member of the Butte College Board of Trustees, asked his question at a meeting of the board.

Trustees and other college officials began looking into the possibility of installing solar panels on the campus to produce electric power.

A ceremony was held today on the main campus to mark the completion of the college”s solar-power project.

“We never set out to make history,” said college President Diana Van Der Ploeg. “We just knew it made sense.”

Jack Scott, Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, spoke at the event.

“I really congratulate Butte College,” he said, adding that at a time when higher education in the state feels an intense financial squeeze. “This is a terrific way to cut costs.”

The college”s arrays of solar panels will generate more than 6.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year — enough to power more than 9,200 homes, officials said.

After trustees decided to go forward with solar power, the next question was “where are we going to put all the panels?” Van Der Ploeg said. “We wanted them to be visible but not obstruct any of our views.”

Now “you can”t look anywhere on this campus without seeing solar panels and realizing what we”re all about,” she said.

The panels are on rooftops, mounted on the ground and used as canopies that shade parking areas and walkways.

The solar panels were put in place in three phases, Van Der Ploeg said.

By 2005, close to 6,000 panels had been installed. During 2008 and 2009, another 4,000 panels were put in. And this week, workers were finishing the biggest phase, consisting of about 15,000 panels.

Of the 25,000 panels, 2,428 are on canopies over parking areas at the college”s Chico Center.

The “most complicated part” was arranging funding for the $31.6 million project, she said. Sources of financing included federal Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, lease revenue bonds, bank financing and some of Butte College”s own money.

It”s estimated the solar project will save the college between $50 million and $75 million over 15 years, even after paying the cost of the project and interest, officials said. Butte will save money by eliminating its electric bill, getting paid for producing excess electricity and avoiding future electricity rate increases.

Officials saw one tangible benefit from the project on Wednesday. Lia White, executive manager for PG&E”s north-state region, presented the college with a rebate check for $977,089.

The utility offers customers rebates because solar panels save PG&E money, White said. The electricity added to the system allows the company to serve new customers without having to build another power plant to generate electricity.

Two other speakers at Wednesday”s ceremony were Les Jauron, the college”s vice president for planning and information, and Mike Miller, Butte”s director of facilities, planning and management.

The college might install more solar panels, Miller said. Some could go in at the new center on the Skyway in south Chico, for example.

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