Cal Poly Solar Plant Receives EPA Sustainability Honor

The university, which has aims to become a net-zero carbon campus by 2050,
also received two state honors for planning innovations 

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly’s commitment to environmental sustainability, as it marches toward a carbon-neutral future, was recognized with a trio of national and state awards.

Cal Poly is among only six organizations nationwide to receive a Leadership Award for direct project engagement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The awards were presented in late September.

The university currently generates more than 10 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of green power annually from its on-site solar energy systems — enough to power more than 1,000 homes, or about 25 percent of the campus’s total power needs

The EPA recognizes the Green Power Partnership, a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use. This type of energy is a subset of renewable sources — solar, wind, geothermal and small hydroelectric energy — and represents the resources and technologies that provide the highest environmental benefit.  

Green Power Partners distinguish themselves through on- and off-site projects using a variety of financing structures to access renewable energy certificate (REC)-based green power. At the end of 2019, the group included more than 1,400 partner organizations, including colleges and universities; local, state and federal governments; and Fortune 500 firms.

“EPA is proud to recognize California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo as a winner of the Direct Project Engagement Award for 2020,” said Matt Clouse, chief of EPA’s Energy Supply and Industry Branch and a 20-year agency veteran. “As we celebrate the 20th year of Green Power Leadership Awards, Cal Poly’s commitment to using green power demonstrates that environmental leadership goes hand-in-hand with business performance.”

Cal Poly entered a long-term power purchase agreement, or PPA, with REC Solar for the 4.5 megawatt, single-axis tracking Gold Tree Solar Farm that sits on 18.5 acres of campus sheep pasture near the California Men’s Colony. The solar farm is the largest single solar array in the 23-campus California State University system. 

The contract reduced upfront capital and long-term power costs that will generate $17 million in savings over the 20-year life of the agreement. In addition, Cal Poly faculty and students use the facility to research utility-scale solar farm vegetation management practices using the university’s sheep herd, optimization of the array’s tracking system controls and AI-based predictive forecasting of solar generation to improve grid operations.

The school was also honored for even longer-term ideas.

In July, Cal Poly received two awards at the 2020 California Higher Education Sustainability Conference held at UC Santa Barbara. It highlights cutting-edge research, as well as case studies with proven successes in curriculum development, student-led programs, community partnerships and operational programs focused on energy and water conservation, green buildings and climate action planning. 

The 19th annual conference was jointly organized by independent/private colleges, and California’s three systems of higher education: California Community Colleges, California State University, and the University of California.

Cal Poly was honored for a project titled “Optimizing the Business Case for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Resilience” in the Partnerships, Communications and Planning category. The award recognizes that campus sustainability efforts rely on long-term planning and building partnerships with diverse stakeholders to integrate sustainability into all aspects of the university and to take sustainability to a higher level of priority. 

The university’s Climate Action Plan aims to achieve carbon neutrality and climate resilience by 2050. The plan was created four years ago in a collaboration between Facilities Management and Development and students in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design City and Regional Planning Department. Many plan strategies identified are underway or have been completed ahead of schedule, including the campus solar farm. 

Facilities officials report greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced to pre-1990 levels, five years ahead of the state mandate, despite doubling the amount of building square footage and on-campus housing since that time.

To optimize the technological and financial path to carbon neutrality while supporting the school’s master plan growth, Cal Poly was also honored for a pair of transformative studies — a comprehensive Utility Master Plan and deep customization of the Climate and Energy Scenario Analysis (CESA) tool originally developed by UC Santa Cruz. 

The Utility Master Plan evaluated infrastructure improvements needed to support increasing enrollment and new facilities envisioned by Cal Poly’s 2035 campus master plan. It considered utility system capacity, age, condition, energy efficiency, redundancy and resilience to climate impacts, allowing their integration into long-term campus planning. The award-winning plan incorporates strategies to align with the Golden State’s goal for a carbon-free electric grid in 25 years by electrifying infrastructure systems and adopting innovative heat recovery technologies pioneered at Stanford University.

The CESA tool was expanded to allow financial and carbon analysis for planning purposes, evaluating the interplay of a variety of investment priorities that all universities grapple with including: energy-efficiency retrofits; energy performance standards for renovations and new construction; generation or purchase of renewable energy; maintenance staffing; as well as the deferred maintenance backlog. 

The two studies make the Cal Poly’s vision for climate neutrality achievable in 30 years, officials said.

Finally, the university received a best practices award for Water Efficiency/Site Water Quality. This category highlights outstanding water efficiency projects that have measurable and documented savings, as well as projects that significantly improve or protect site water quality. 

The project, “Reimagining Water — Reuse, Renewal, Resilience and Research,” aims to develop an on-campus recycled water system to treat a portion of Cal Poly’s wastewater to a standard so clean that it can be used in irrigation of food crops.

“By reusing a portion of Cal Poly’s limited water supply twice, this system will provide the campus with sufficient new water and wastewater capacity to meet the needs of the 2035 Master Plan, renew and expand agricultural irrigation distribution and storage infrastructure, save $10 million dollars, and create a valuable academic asset that will support curriculum, research, and an innovative waste water operator licensing program,” said Dennis Elliot, Cal Poly’s director of energy, utilities and sustainability. 

The modular and scalable recycled water facility will be built in two phases and will ultimately produce approximately 400 acre-feet of water. (One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, one foot deep. An average California household uses between one-half and one acre-foot of water per year for indoor and outdoor use.) Located adjacent to the campus dairy, the facility will include a water testing laboratory and an academic classroom for use by multiple academic disciplines.

Cal Poly is among the leaders in the CSU and comparable to UC campuses and many private institutions. Last fall, the university earned a STARS Gold Rating — the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s second highest honor — in recognition of sustainability achievements. With more than 1,000 participants in 30 countries, AASHE’s STARS program is the most widely recognized framework in the world for publicly reporting comprehensive information related to a college or university’s sustainability performance. Cal Poly is among 139 gold schools. Only nine schools have achieved the top Platinum Rating, 157 have earned silver status, while 52 carry a Bronze Rating.

About Cal Poly
Founded in 1901 and part of the renowned California State University system since 1960, Cal Poly is a nationally ranked, four-year, comprehensive polytechnic public university located in San Luis Obispo, California. Known for its Learn by Doing approach, small class sizes and open access to expert faculty, Cal Poly is a distinctive learning community whose more than 21,000 academically motivated students in its six colleges enjoy an unrivaled hands-on educational experience that prepares them to become Day One-ready employees and lead successful personal and professional lives. For more information, visit

About Cal Poly Energy, Utilities and Sustainability
Cal Poly Energy, Utilities, and Sustainability, a unit of Facilities Management and Development, is dedicated to the responsible management of the natural resources that impact campus operations. Electricity, natural gas, water and various other resources are critical to operating a successful university, and the sustainable use of these resources is a driving force in Cal Poly campus planning and operations. A renowned leader in sustainability efforts, Cal Poly has received 34 Best Practice Awards from the UC/CSU/CCC Energy Efficiency Partnership Program. The campus has also earned significant CSU funding and utility incentives for energy conservation and continues to be named a Tree Campus USA and Best Workplace for Commuters. For more information, visit

Contact: Dennis Elliott

October 7, 2020

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