Butte Community College in northern California is hardly the biggest, or the best endowed college in the country, but it is on track to become the largest solar producing college in the world – and the first college in the country to produce more solar power than it consumes. Already, close to half the energy it consumes comes from solar power generated by its campus, where solar panels rest atop parking spots, walkways and rooftops.

While it’s impressive that a small community college is a leader in campus solar production, Butte’s achievement with solar is all the more notable  considering that it installed its first solar panel on campus just five years ago. Its mantra was initially one of “slow and steady,” but as it gained momentum, it began to see the benefits of adding solar generating capacity, and it picked up the pace. With the recent approval of its Phase III solar project, the school will add about 15,000 additional solar panels to its existing base of 10,000. All told, it will generate enough solar power to fuel 9,200 typical homes, the equivalent, it says, of taking 6,000 cars off the road.

How did it get there? Largely, by recognizing that cost did not have to be a barrier. The vast majority of the funding for its latest solar expansion comes from federal clean renewable energy bonds, or CREBS, low-interest loans that can be used for clean energy projects. Butte has also taken advantage of rebates from Pacific Gas and Electric, the California Solar Initiative and stimulus funding allocated by the 2008 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Of course the college also recognizes that it will recover upfront investments in future energy savings. Already, it says its on-campus solar generation is saving it $300,000 a year in utility costs.

Butte is also a good example of how the benefits of investing in sustainable energy go far beyond saving money and reducing emissions. All those solar panels dotting the campus eventually earned Butte national recognition – and additional grant money to train displaced workers in photovoltaic design and installation.

Do you think upfront investments deter people from solar?