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Albemarle schools to vote on solar expansion
20131205-Henley Middle School Solar Panels
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Lindsay Snoddy, Environmental Compliance Manager for ACPS, showing the solar thermal panels on the roof of Henley Middle School
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Tim Shea | Thursday, March 26, 2015 at 8:57 p.m.

Next school year, some of Albemarle County’s public schools might be producing a portion of their own electricity.

On Thursday, the Albemarle County School Board heard about a potential solar power purchase agreement with Secure Futures, a Staunton-based solar development company. Under the plan, Secure Futures would outfit the roofs of seven schools at no cost to Albemarle, which would agree to purchase power from Secure Futures for 20 years.

Schools officials said the move could save up to $80,000 over the 20-year period if Dominion Power’s rates increase by at least 2 percent each year. Historically, Dominion’s average annual increase has been about 3 percent, schools officials said.

“It gives us stability, so we know what the rate is going to be one year to the next,” said Phil Giaramita, spokesman for Albemarle County Public Schools. “But the real benefit is on the environmental side.”

The division estimates that the entire photovoltaic system’s output — just over one megawatt — will be equivalent to eliminating 102,117 gallons of gasoline per year, and could sufficiently power 125 homes for one year.

The project — which would be completed this summer — would account for 14 percent of electricity needs at the proposed sites, and 6 percent of the division’s entire electricity needs.

Schools officials said potential negatives include the length of the agreement and the risk that Dominion’s price of electricity might fall below the contracted rate. Additionally, future building expansions would have to be considered in order to avoid shading the panels.

As proposed, Monticello High, Albemarle High, Sutherland Middle, Baker-Butler Elementary, Hollymead Elementary, Greer Elementary and Brownsville Elementary would play home to the new structures.

Monticello High would be the largest generator of power at 269 kilowatts, followed by Albemarle High at 123 kilowatts.

Giaramita said sites were selected based on a roof’s age and material, noting that affixing the solar panels to metal roofs that are about 5 years old or newer is a best practice.

The proposed initiative is the result of 2013 legislation that allowed the Virginia State Corporation Commission to conduct a solar and wind energy pilot program that will produce up to 50 megawatts within Dominion Power’s service area.

School Board member Steve Koleszar praised the effort.

“I’m very excited about it, and it will probably save us money,” Koleszar said. “I think we’re more likely to win than lose.”

“It’s an appropriate use of renewable energy, and it reduces our carbon footprint,” said Dean Tistadt, the school division’s chief operating officer.

School Board member Kate Acuff asked if staff had considered adding panels to Western Albemarle High School, since it is home to the division’s environmental sciences academy.

Lindsay Snoddy, the school division’s environmental compliance manager, said that project — which also will feature two spotlight panels placed in a more accessible location for educational purposes, rather than on the roof — potentially could be sited at Western.

Currently, Henley Middle School is the only county school with solar panels. Giaramita said one factor contributing to the division’s interest is the way the school has integrated the technology into the school’s curriculum.

For the new sites, Secure Futures staff have agreed to host two or three solar workshops per year to teach students about the technology.

“It will have a huge educational benefit,” Snoddy said.

Giaramita said Snoddy has been the driving force behind the project.

“She’s had this idea from the moment we installed the panels at Henley, so it’s a concept she’s had for some time,” Giaramita said.

The school division analyzed a purchasing agreement as compared with owning a system, but found that, with ownership, positive cash flow would not be realized for 19 years.

The School Board will vote April 2 on whether to approve the agreement.


UPDATE April 2, 2015: The Albemarle County School Board voted unanimously to proceed with the solar power purchase agreement with Secure Futures.  Officials emphasized that no capital equipment is being purchased by the schools.  Secure Futures will purchase and install the solar panels and the school division will buy the electricity.

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