Amory Fischer was a high school sophomore in Albermarle County in central Virginia four years ago when he got interested in the idea of using solar panels to provide some of the power used by the local schools. He found a lot of people shared his enthusiasm, but economic and policy hurdles stood in the way.
In 2012, a local middle school used federal stimulus money to install solar PV and solar hot water. Unfortunately, schools without grant funding couldn’t afford to follow suit. Although the cost of solar panels had fallen to record low levels, buying and installing them still required a significant upfront capital investment. And as tax-exempt entities, public schools couldn’t take advantage of the 30% federal tax credit available to residents and businesses.
Then, in 2013, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law allowing nonprofits and local governments, among others, to buy solar power using a tax-advantaged financing method known as a third party power purchase agreement (PPA).* PPAs can be structured to require no upfront capital from the customer, just payment for the electricity the solar panels produce. Suddenly, for the first time, the economics favored solar for Virginia schools.
Amory and fellow students collaborated with Lindsay Snoddy, the school division’s Environmental Compliance Manager, and spent the next year educating teachers, staff, parents and the community about the benefits of solar and the opportunities presented by the new law. Partnering with environmental groups 350 Central Virginia and the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, they formed the Solar Schools Initiative and circulated a petition that garnered nearly a thousand signatures in support of putting solar on Albermarle schools.
It worked. Once school board members understood that a PPA would let the schools install solar panels at no additional cost premium over regular “brown” power—and indeed, would even save them money—their support was unanimous. The school board issued a Request for Proposals and chose Staunton-based solar developer Secure Futures, LLC to develop the projects.
Six area schools will have solar panels installed by the end of this year: two high schools, a middle school, and three elementary schools. Together, the installations will total 3,000 solar panels for a combined 1 megawatt (1,000 kW) of capacity, producing about 14% of the electricity used by the schools.
Amory Fischer is now a junior at Virginia Tech, where he studies Environmental Policy and Planning. This summer he will be working for Secure Futures and trying to encourage more schools across the Commonwealth to go solar.
He will find a promising market, so far largely untapped. A small number of schools elsewhere in Virginia already boast solar panels, but most of them are small systems designed more for their educational value than to make a significant contribution to the school’s power demand. One significant exception is the Center for Energy Efficient Design, an educationally-focused building in Franklin County that “enables students and community members to explore various energy devices and techniques to make intelligent decisions about energy and housing.” It was completed in 2010 and designed to PassivHaus and LEED Platinum standards. In addition to solar panels, two wind turbines help meet the electric demand, and the building includes other energy and water-saving features like a geothermal system, solar hot water and a green roof. The project reflects an impressive commitment from the Franklin County School Board going back to 2004.
More recently, Arlington County has made a commitment to sustainable design in its schools as well as other county-owned buildings. Its LEED Gold-certified Wakefield High School, completed in 2013, includes a 90-kW solar PV installation. The county’s next school building will be even more ambitious. Discovery Elementary School, under construction on the grounds of Williamsburg Middle School, will include 496 kW of solar to allow the super-efficient building to produce as much electricity as it consumes. Buildings that achieve that feat are referred to as “net zero energy.”
Net zero is also the goal of advocates in Harrisonburg, who are pushing the city to include solar and other green features on a school building that is currently in the design phase. Bishop Dansby, a member of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Green Network, says residents collected more than 800 signatures in support of a net zero energy school, but the school board has not told them yet whether it will adopt the recommendation. One encouraging sign: the board has hired Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects, the firm behind Arlington’s Discovery school.
Other Virginia localities are decidedly lagging, including ones you’d expect to see in the lead. Affluent, tech-savvy Fairfax County is missing in action on solar schools; advocates point to an insular and uninterested school bureaucracy as the primary barrier. A group of students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology hopes to change that with a petition drive aimed at getting the county to act.
*Unfortunately, the 2013 PPA law applies only to customers of Dominion Virginia Power as part of a two year “pilot program.” The legality of PPAs elsewhere in Virginia is unclear. However, Secure Futures offers a PPA alternative called a Customer Self-Generation Agreement that offers similar benefits. The company believes is legal in all parts of Virginia.