Schools sign solar contract

Locust Grove Middle School has the capacity to generate 91 percent of its energy usage once solar panels are installed. The school board approved a contract at its meeting Monday that would put solar panels on eight school facilities. 

Over the next 25 years, Orange County Schools expect to generate approximately half the electricity used on a number of school buildings with rooftop solar panels. 

In a 4-1 vote Monday afternoon, the school board culminated nearly four years of research and discussions with a 25-year partnership with Secure Futures, LLC, a solar-based provider in Staunton with current contracts in Albemarle, Augusta, Richmond City and Lexington City schools.

Before the vote, Orange County Schools Maintenance Director Doug Arnold offered a brief timeline of the schools’ solar project, noting its origin back in the spring of 2015. He learned nearby Albemarle County Schools had installed solar panels and was curious about whether or not Orange might realize similar savings.

“After analysis and initial proposals, the terms with the vendors were not favorable, so the board took no action at that time,” he recalled.

Fast-forward to March 2019. He said technology and the proposals had improved substantially.

When the school board began reconsidering the project, market conditions had improved markedly, he noted—including the prospect of adding school roof restoration (to repair school roofs to accommodate the panels) as a contractual factor.

Orange County Schools’ facilities fall into three categories, he outlined for the school board—those with standing seam metal roofs that easily can accommodate solar panels, those that would require some restoration and repair and those that are unable to accommodate any solar panels.

Gordon-Barbour Elementary, Lightfoot Elementary and Unionville Elementary all fall within the last category.

Locust Grove Middle School has the capacity to generate up to 91% of its own power needs—the most of any school facility in the county, he reported. Other schools and school buildings, including the Taylor Education Administration Complex, would generate an average of 48 percent of their energy requirements.

In recommending the board enter into the solar contract, he said energy costs would not only be 5% less than current market rates, but annual escalation rates would be only 1% annually—less than the Dominion Energy average of 3%.

Orange County Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead recommended the board approve the contract, which District 4 board member Bette Winter made in the form of a motion. District 3 board member Mike Jones seconded the motion, which passed 4-1 with only District 5 board member Jim Hopkins dissenting.

The contract is for 25 years and is expected to save the schools approximately $11 million in energy costs over the life of the contract while subsidizing roof repair and replacement projects at Orange Elementary School, Orange County High School and TEAC.

“It gives me great pleasure that we finally have this project moving forward,” board chair and District 2 representative Sherrie Page said after the vote.

“We’ve been working on this solar project for many years and Doug [Arnold] has done the majority of the work on this. I appreciate his patience,” District 1 board member Carol Couch added. “A 25-year contract is challenging. None of us knows what the future holds, but I feel this is a step in the right direction.”

Winter built on those optimistic remarks.

“This is a great contract,” she said. “We’re going to save $11 million on our energy bill over a 25-year period and this will provide educational opportunities for our students in an emerging technology at the same time.”

She was careful to note that the school division was not purchasing the solar panels that would sit atop the rooftops at the three Locust Grove schools, the high school, the Hornet Sports Center, Prospect Heights Middle School and TEAC.

“We’ll just be getting power from the sun we’d normally be getting from Dominion,” she said. “We’re going to leave Orange County in a good position in 25 years. We’re going to give the school board choices. They can continue the contract or get rid of the panels.”

Secure Futures’ co-owner and financial and technical manager Andrew Yoder was part of those first conversations with the school board four years ago.

“When we first looked at this, back in 2015, the numbers were break-even,” he said after the board’s vote Monday. In the last year, though, Arnold contacted the company for a fresh look under current market conditions.

“We found we could provide solar at eight of the school facilities and restore the rooftops in three of those locations that would take a budget expenditure and turn it into an asset,” Yoder said. “We’ll give them a 25-year warranty on the roof and solarize it. Our ability to fix those roofs made this a much better offer.”

Essentially, the schools will pay Yoder’s company for the energy it creates, instead of paying Dominion or Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. They’ll also pay—over time—for the roof repairs.

The length of the contract is beneficial to both parties as it defrays costs and helps amortize costs, he said. The schools don’t pay any money up-front. He said the solar panels have approximately a 40-year life span and should still operate at 75 to 80% capacity at the conclusion of the 25-year contract.

Arnold said the schools spend in the “high $100,000s” in energy costs annually. He suggested the Hornet Sports Center would be the project’s showpiece for the community.

Yoder said much of the preliminary engineering on the project has been completed and he and his team hoped to install the panels during summer break and have the project operational before the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“It’s an ambitious goal, but that’s the plan,” Arnold added.

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