Cabrillo College’s new multimillion-dollar solar panels nearing completion

new solar panels over parking areas at Cabrillo College in Aptos
Solar panels at Cabrillo College’s Aptos campus could cut the school’s electricity bill by two-thirds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The $2.5 million project to create 26 solar-powered carport canopies at Cabrillo College’s Aptos campus could save the school $6 million in energy costs over the next decade and as much as $15 million within 20 years.

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Cabrillo College is close to completing its most ambitious renewable energy project to date as it covers four parking lots with solar panels. The $2.5 million project to create 26 solar-powered carport canopies at its Aptos campus is expected to slash the college’s electricity bill by nearly two-thirds once it’s finished, which is on track for the fall.

“It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done in sustainability,” said Jon Salisbury, Cabrillo’s facilities planning and plant operations director. Salisbury estimates the project, which started construction last September, will save the college $6 million in energy costs over the next decade and as much as $15 million within 20 years.

This project is just one of many underway across Santa Cruz County as the region attempts to meet state-mandated goals to reduce carbon emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 — and become carbon-neutral by 2045.

Energy produced by the carport solar panels will flow to campus and off campus to the power grid to go wherever it might be needed. Salisbury said the system is expected to offset about 3,105 metric tons of carbon, which he estimates to be the equivalent of removing 691 cars from the road for a year.

ForeFront Power, a San Francisco-based solar energy company, owns and operates the solar panels through a power purchase agreement with Cabrillo. The college then pays the company 11 cents per kilowatt hour for the next 20 years.

Salisbury said the power purchase agreement was a cost-effective model for this large-scale project, which was paid for through the college’s general fund and some state funding.

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As for future projects, he said the college has also been looking into adding electric vehicle charging stations to its campuses; it currently has four such stations. However, he said officials are still working out specifics and a timeline for that project.

That EV project would address what the county and the college both estimate to be their largest source of greenhouse gas emissions: transportation.

Almost 70% of all emissions in unincorporated Santa Cruz County come from the transportation sector, according to the county’s 2022 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

new solar panels over parking areas at Cabrillo College in Aptos
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Salisbury said the college is also involved in contract negotiations for a 2-megawatt battery, similar to “a shipping container,” that could be integrated into the project. It currently has a contract for a 1-megawatt battery, but is hoping to reach an agreement for a 2-megawatt instead. The battery will charge itself when energy is cheap — typically in the early morning hours. Then, in the hours when demand is high and energy is expensive, it will dump energy into the system.

Dave Reid, director of the Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience at Santa Cruz County, said it’s great the college was able to execute such a large project, particularly because it helps make the county’s energy infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

“We know that our electric transmission infrastructure is vulnerable to wind and other natural disasters — and if that power has to come from far away, you have more vulnerability to that infrastructure,” he said. “So local projects like the one Cabrillo is embarking upon, it’s helping to build more resilience for the county in the community in the region.”

Reid said the county’s two biggest priorities when it comes to climate change are adding electric charging infrastructure and addressing the housing affordability crisis.

“It’s one of the biggest things that we’re working on, and oftentimes for some folks, housing doesn’t translate to climate, but the housing crisis really does,” said Reid. If people live closer to where they work or where they study, they can reduce the miles they travel, and therefore their carbon emissions.

Cabrillo College is in the midst of pursuing on-campus housing — a joint 624-bed housing facility with UC Santa Cruz on the Cabrillo campus — as part of its efforts to improve access for its students, while simultaneously reducing the impact of its commuting students. Student transportation makes up 79% of the college’s emissions, according to Salisbury.

USEFUL LINKS: City of Santa Cruz Climate Action Plan adopted in 2022 | County of Santa Cruz Climate Action and Adaptation Plan adopted in 2022


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