At Henley Middle School, roof-mounted solar panels gleam in the sun and produce 6 percent of the building’s power. Soon, more Albemarle schools may run on solar energy.
On July 1, Albemarle County’s current energy contract with Dominion Power will be eligible for renegotiation that may open the way for a new solar power purchase agreement (PPA).
“We know the students want this,” said Lindsay Snoddy, environmental compliance manager for Albemarle County Public Schools. “We want to give them all the tools they need for their education, and this is a valuable one.”
One group of students has partnered with 350 Central Virginia and the Sierra Club to form the Solar Schools Initiative. They have spent the past few years raising awareness and supporting Snoddy’s work.
“It started when about a dozen students came to the Sierra Club and 350 [Central Virginia],” said Amory Fischer, a graduate of Albemarle High School and current Virginia Tech student who has remained involved. Since then, the three groups have worked together to promote solar power that saves money, improves public health and reduces pollution.
Elizabeth Thorne, a recent Albemarle High School graduate, also spent her final years of high school engaged in the Solar Schools Initiative.
“Harnessing the sun’s energy is a lot more accessible than we think,” said Thorne. “We would be on the cutting edge in Virginia…we could become a model for Virginia and our community.”
Despite the students’ enthusiasm and the potential for numerous benefits, including the predictability of energy costs, obstacles still remain.
If the new contract with Dominion allows for solar power purchases, the County’s Architectural Review Board would need to approve any panels that are visible from designated entrance corridors before installation.
Additionally, structural engineers would need to ensure that a school’s roof can support a solar panel system. Only 10 of the County’s 26 schools have roofs that are currently able to support solar panels.
Snoddy emphasized that schools would not pursue solar power unless it proves to be cost neutral or money-saving.
“We’re hoping that the [Virginia Energy Purchasing Governmental Association] agreement will allow us to participate in the pilot,” Snoddy said.
Under the pilot, schools would still purchase the majority of their energy from Dominion, but third party companies could provide up to 50 megawatts of solar generated power in Dominion’s territory.
The third party energy provider would finance the necessary solar power equipment so that schools would put down little or no capital investment.
Though Virginia does not offer tax credits for solar energy, and the schools themselves are non-taxed entities, the new agreement offers third party vendors an incentive by making them eligible to collect 30 percent Federal tax credits.
Roger Voisinet, a local expert on solar energy, said that state laws are changing rapidly.
“Any federal incentives – tax credits, historically – are easy to keep up with, because those tend to be multiyear laws,” said Voisinet. “The state is the one that seems to be the most difficult to keep up with…it’s a fast-evolving economic landscape and there are a lot of new players.”
In the meantime, schools are preparing for renewable energy.
“You always want to conserve first,” Snoddy said. “If you have a boiler that’s 40 years old, you’re going to get faster payback for replacing that boiler than putting panels on the school.”
“If we can do both through Solar PPA, then that’s a win-win,” she added. “We’d keep our capital improvement program the same, replacing that equipment as it comes to the end of its life, and then getting [solar power] on top of it.”
Fischer remains hopeful about the future of solar energy in schools.
“I want to be wherever I can make the most difference in the world,” said Fischer, who is studying Environmental Policy and Planning. “If it’s helping students get solar power, then that’s where I’ll be.”
Last year, the Virginia School Boards Association awarded Albemarle County Public Schools a first place ranking for energy efficiency.
Interested parties can read more about the Solar Schools Initiative here: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/solar-power-for-albemarle-schools.