Orange Elementary School

If the solar power plan goes through, all Orange County Public Schools, including Orange Elementary School (shown here), will have solar panels on their rooftops. 

After a lengthy closed session Monday afternoon, the Orange County School Board voted 3-2 to pursue a contract with a company that could provide solar power to schools across the division and roof repairs in the bargain.

If the board approves the proposed 25-year contract with the company, whose identity was not announced during open session, the school division stands to save considerable money on electricity and cut its dependence on Dominion Energy and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative by about half, according to Doug Arnold, supervisor of facilities and maintenance for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). The company would own and maintain the panels over the life of the contract.

Board chair Sherrie Page of District 2, Mike Jones of District 3 and Bette Winter of District 4 voted in favor of the motion. Carol Couch and Jim Hopkins, of districts 1 and 5, respectively, voted against it.

In previous board discussions of solar power, Hopkins has voiced concern about signing on with a solar power company that would do roof repairs as part of its contract. With Couch in agreement, he asked Arnold to seek out information from other solar power companies so the board could compare costs.

Arnold did that. The board narrowed down its options to two companies during closed session Monday and voted on one that offered to combine ongoing roof maintenance with solar energy.

During the meeting, Hopkins again stressed that “the roofs are not being replaced for free,” since those costs would be bundled in with charges for solar power.

“We’re missing one factor. How do we know what they’re saying in roof replacement is a good deal for us?” he said, adding that he wanted to know how much it would cost if the school division “replaced the roofs on our own.”

He continued, “How do I know that their roof replacement part is a good deal if I don’t know what it costs just to hire somebody to replace the roof?”

In response, Arnold said that he is satisfied with the cost per square foot that the company has provided.

When it came time for a roll call vote, Couch said she was “sort of on the fence” before voting against the motion.

After the meeting, Arnold said that in addition to offering cost savings over the life of the anticipated contract, solar power is environmentally friendly, since it doesn’t require consumption of any fuel—except what is naturally provided by the sun.

For more than two years, Arnold has been urging the board to move toward solar power. He said that if the board approves a contract with the company under consideration, installation of the solar panels could begin as soon as September or October and move quickly: “We would expect it to be all done by next summer. Maybe sooner. I don't have an exact timeline yet.”

Arnold said the panels would be located on school rooftops at the back of the buildings. Asked whether the panels would be easily seen, he said, “Not so much. You will see it from the back side if you’re up on the ball fields at, say, Prospect Heights [Middle School] or from the playgrounds at Locust Grove schools.

“The most evident will be at the Hornet Sports Center where we have the brand-new metal roof a couple of years ago, and that will have solar panels on the south side, which happens to face Route 20. That will be our real showcase that we’re doing solar.”

Even with the solar panels in place, Arnold said the schools will still depend on Dominion Energy and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative for “a good bit” of the division’s electricity.

“We don’t have enough roof area to support 100% of the buildings’ needs 100% of the time,” he explained.

In the summer, when the schools are largely unoccupied, there may be times when the panels produce more power than is needed, he added. “But overall it’ll be less.”

Solar-fueled public schools are something relatively new under the sun in Virginia. In 2015, Albemarle County Schools signed an agreement with Secure Futures, a solar energy company based in Staunton. 

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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