Oregon’s state universities are embarking on what’s believed to be the state’s largest solar energy project, an effort that will eventually bring solar arrays to all seven campuses in the Oregon University System.

The project — called Solar By Degrees — will begin installation of a total of 27 acres of solar panels generating almost 5 megawatts of power at the Oregon Institute of Technology, Oregon State University and Eastern Oregon University. A staged installation will begin this summer and fall, and will continue in 2012.

Many of the contractors and manufacturers from the project will come from Oregon, according to a press statement from the Oregon University System, which is composed of the University of Oregon, Eastern Oregon University, Oregon State University, Portland State University, Western Oregon University, Oregon Health and Science University, and the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT).

“OIT will have a unique configuration utilizing both solar and their current geothermal power to generate 100 percent of their electricity and heating needs,” according an announcement of the new initiative. “Their Klamath Falls campus is currently the only university in the world that is completely heated by geothermal water, and it has the first university-based geothermal combined heat and power plant in the world.”

According to OIT’s president, the school will achieve energy independence using entirely renewable resources when its larger geothermal power plant comes online in 2012. Sixteen thousand solar panels will be installed.

Renewable Energy Development Corp., a Utah-based renewable energy development firm, will provide solar power to each of the seven campuses in two phases. State and federal tax incentives will be used to purchase power at or below the current electrical utility rates for the campuses. The Oregon University System estimates savings of $6.6 million in utility rates over a 25-year period, at which point the panels revert to campus ownership.

“We’re excited about the potential for hands-on research and study the solar array will provide for our students and faculty,” said Eastern Oregon University president Bob Davies.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and other officials announced the program late last week in Klamath Falls, Ore.