It’s a warm and brilliantly sunny February afternoon, even by Southern California standards, and hundreds of cars are parked beneath canopies at East Los Angeles College. Several other spots on campus offer temporary shade, but this one has an added purpose.
Lining the roof are 6,000 solar panels that factor prominently in the college's renewable energy plan. The idea is eventually to install enough panels there -- and at eight other campuses that make up the Los Angeles Community College District -- to produce enough energy on site to meet all daytime electricity needs.
The solar panel project is one piece of a much larger (in the ballpark of $2.2 billion) construction and modernization campaign  that's underway at the 188,000-student district. Funded by voter-approved bonds, the program calls for, among other things, 40 LEED-certified  buildings and dozens of retrofits. The district's renewable energy plan leans heavily on private support, and it brings to the table the William J. Clinton Foundation.
When it comes to campus sustainability campaigns, large public universities and liberal arts college tend to get the most publicity. Two-year colleges are also making a play, as the mega-sized LACCD is out to prove with this expansive initiative.
Late last year, the district announced that it had been selected by the Clinton Climate Initiative, a project of the former president's foundation, to take part in a pilot project on energy efficiency . Clinton's group, in conjunction with the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment , is connecting colleges with companies that are offering to help fund building retrofit projects that lead to energy savings. LACCD's project involves retrofitting 455 buildings across nine campuses, replacing items such as lighting fixtures and fans with more efficient products.
"What the pilot is going to do is identify these different areas in our buildings where modest kind of changes will have a significant impact on energy demand,” said Larry Eisenberg, the district's executive director of facilities planning and development.
The economic model, Eisenberg explained, is that by opening up for bidding dozens of energy projects, these companies can cut down on marketing costs and charge colleges less for their services.
Several banks are offering $1 billion each in financing for retrofits (at colleges and otherwise). By taking part in the pilot project, LACCD says it can address building efficiency while still avoiding capital spending or increases in monthly operating expenses.
“It was a green idea when we pitched this to our board," Eisenberg said. "That's where they were coming from. But what it’s transformed into is a budget play -- the idea that we’re going to save money in terms of the cost of installing and in terms of our operating budget.”
Projects already underway at LACCD don't involve Clinton's group but are an effort to, as the district puts it, "go off the [power] grid" by reducing energy demand. (Listen to Eisenberg explain the initiatives in this podcast .)
The district spends roughly $12 million a year on energy, Eisenberg said. Through a combination of alternative-energy methods -- namely solar, wind and geothermal -- the idea is to generate (and store) enough on-site power for each college to eliminate power bills.
At Los Angeles Valley College, a new maintenance and operations facility serves as a model for other projects -- with skylights to maximize natural light, rooftop solar panels and low-emitting materials used indoors. For many of the projects, including the East Los Angeles College solar panels, the plan is to have kiosks outside explaining how much energy is being generated.
The district has contracted with Chevron Energy Solutions to design, build, own, operate, maintain and arrange financing for central utility plant projects on six campuses. At East Los Angeles College, Chevron has brought in another company that owns the solar facility, provides financing and sells power from the solar facility to the district through a power purchase agreement. That company, the college says, can take advantage of tax incentives that aren't available to public institutions. And the cost of purchasing solar will be lower than the cost the district pays to its local utility, Eisenberg said.
LACCD pays only for the power that is produced, and Chevron guarantees a minimum level of power output. That way, the district can plan and budget for its energy costs each year. It also has the option of buying back the solar panel system after a number of years, and eventually selling power to other parties. More energy will be generated from the panels than is needed at the college, so some goes back into the grid, and some will be put into centralized storage.
The grid system is already installed at East Los Angeles College, but wiring and connections have yet to be completed. The district is planning a "flip the switch" event for April. Electricity generated from the panels will satisfy about 50 percent of the college's needs, according to the district. However, the effort will have to continue. When all the new buildings are completed by the end of next year, the panels will represent only 30 percent of energy needs.