Newest school proposal involves solar panels

Published 5:35 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2019

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer

Isle of Wight County schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton is considering outfitting six schools in the county with solar panels through a power purchase agreement that he said would generate no cost for the schools and actually save roughly $100,000 per year. 

“If we think it’s a possibility to save money and it doesn’t cost us anything to try, I think it’s worth exploring,” said Thornton at the May 9 School Board meeting. 

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The schools being considered are Hardy, Westside and Windsor elementary schools, Smithfield Middle and High schools and Windsor High School. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

In the first year of operation, Thornton said that cost savings would equal $104,082, and after 25 years, saving projections would reach $3.9 million. Two companies in talks for the project are Sun Tribe Solar and Convert Solar, according to Isle of Wight County Schools spokesperson Lynn Briggs. 

A solar power purchase agreement is a financial arrangement in which a third-party developer owns, operates and maintains the solar energy system, while a host customer agrees to site the system on its property and purchases the system’s electric output from the solar services provider, according to information from 

The provider receives tax credits associated with solar energy usage and income generated from the sale of electricity, while the host customer receives stable and often low-cost energy, per the agency website. 

Cost projections show that energy captured from the sun via solar panels has a rate of slightly over 7 cents per kilowatt hour, while Thornton’s May 9 presentation on the solar energy project marks the current cost from Dominion Energy to power the schools at 10 cents per kilowatt hour. 

“What this is all about is getting more predictable bills,” said Thornton, adding that the schools’ combined energy bill has been increasing by about 2 percent a year, and that the solar panel system would make payments lower and more consistent. 

Isle of Wight County School Board Vice Chair Jackie Carr said on May 13 that, while she never wants to say no to something that could be an improvement for the schools, she doesn’t want to rush into anything before considering it fully. “It’s certainly nothing that’s been decided on,” she said on the solar project, later adding, “Let’s do more research. Let’s ask more questions.”

“We’re always interested in saving money, and that’s kind of what it was all about,” she said.

Other Virginia school systems in Virginia have entered into solar energy PPA’s, or power purchase agreements, according to Thornton, including Albemarle County, Lexington County, Bath County, Middlesex County, Augusta County, Richmond, Harrisonburg, Arlington County and King William County. 

“What’s interesting about it is this costs us nothing to do,” said Thornton, adding that other solar agreements include the customer — which would be Isle of Wight County Schools, hypothetically — fronting money for solar equipment and then realizing energy cost savings as time goes on. 

Carr asked if it were possible to roll out solar panels on one school as a test before including the six schools named in the presentation during the May 9 School Board meeting. In response, Thornton said that the PPA’s being considered were backed by investors, and that “these investors really want to support the Green Movement. They’re not getting a huge return on investment for these projects either. They believe in this, so without doing a certain number of schools, it’s not worth their investment into the panels, and their return on investment as well.”

When asked if implementing solar panels at Hardy would prevent the option of building a new school — an option currently being weighed by both the county’s school system and Board of Supervisors — Briggs said that at this point, the implementation of the solar panels is not moving forward, but that staff is interested in learning more about the benefits of solar energy as a cost saving measure. 

Briggs said that if the schools decide to move forward with installing solar energy panels, they would follow proper procurement procedure including board approval of the contract. 

Thornton said that solar panels would not affect the roof structures of schools, and that when it comes time to replace roofs, the company chosen to implement the solar panels would bring staff in to move them and then return them to their original spots. 

Outfitting the roof of Hardy Elementary School with solar panels would generate 76 percent of the required annual energy usage, and for Smithfield High School, that rate is 74 percent. 

“The higher that number, the more savings you’re going to have with the solar panels,” said Thornton, and Briggs said that the energy from the solar panels would be used to offset the costs from Dominion Power to energize the schools.

Thornton said the project could include internship opportunities for students.  {/mprestriction}