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North Stafford High Hosts Virginia's Largest School Solar Project

By installing 3,300 solar panels on its roof, a high school in Virginia expects to save $2.8 million in electric bills for the next 25 years, generate 54 million kilowatt hours of clean energy and offset 8,000 tons of CO2.

(TNS) — Workers have started installing the 3,300 solar panels that will convert the sun's energy into electricity at North Stafford High School, site of the largest school rooftop solar array in the state.

"It's pretty exciting to see it start kicking off," said Josh Schimpf, energy management and regulatory compliance coordinator for Stafford schools. "I personally and professional really enjoy this, the solar stuff is really a nerdy passion of mine."

The project is estimated to save the school $2.8 million in electric bills for the next 25 years, generate 54 million kilowatt hours of clean energy and offset 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of taking more than 42,000 automobiles off the road, according to a news release.

And the cost to the county can't be beat.

"There's our department's time in the development and supervision of it, other than that, it's zero cost to the division," Schimpf added.

Stafford schools started the process to install the array, or collection of solar panels, in 2020. They're working with Sun Tribe Solar of Charlottesville, which developed the project, then sold the concept to Madison Energy Infrastructure, which has headquarters in New York.

MEI is responsible for construction and operation.

Stafford's partners don't disclose the total cost of their investment, but school officials estimated it's a multimillion-dollar project.

MEI fronts the costs of equipment and installation "and gets its payback over time on a monthly basis by selling us energy, but it's at a much cheaper cost than we would otherwise pay," said Jason Towery, the school division's executive director of facilities and maintenance.

Once the project goes online — and the school expects its portion to be complete this summer — Stafford will pay a lesser amount than it currently pays Dominion Power for each kilowatt hour of electricity used.

"And we're using hundreds of thousands of kilowatt hours at this school every month," Schimpf said.

In addition, MEI can claim 30 percent of the investment on their taxes as part of the Federal Solar Tax Credit, which is available to businesses and homeowners. The credit is not available to schools, however, which is another reason Stafford needed partners.

North Stafford High School was chosen for the solar array because its flat roof was replaced about six years ago and should last as long as the solar panels.

"We don't want to get halfway through the life of the solar array and have to take it off to replace the roof," Towery said.

North Stafford also was ideal because it's all-electric, which means a "bigger bang for the buck," Schimpf said.

The county's sixth high school and new elementary schools will be built to accommodate solar arrays. Not all existing schools are suitable for panels due to their location, or because the power companies that serve them aren't set up to accept the excess power the panels will generate.

Stafford officials expect the North Stafford project to produce its most electricity in the summer, when schools are open on a limited basis. It has the needed infrastructure, as part of the project, to send the energy it doesn't use in the summer to the power company.

North Stafford will get credits which it can then use in the winter months when more electricity is needed and the panels don't generate as much.

The flow of electricity ebbs and flows over the course of a year, but based on current models, Stafford officials expect the panels to produce about 84% of North Stafford's annual electricity needs.

The project also has another benefit: giving students the opportunity "to have a real-world experience," said Principal Dashan Turner. Sun Tribe officials visited classrooms last week to discuss how solar panels convert light into electricity, how much power is generated and jobs in the industry.

"It came at a fortuitous time, right after we had finished studying energy," said David Bergman, physics teacher. "It was an opportunity to give a good practical application of the stuff we were studying."

Students looked at dashboards from a school in Fluvanna County that has solar panels and saw the way the amount of electricity generated varied depending on the weather. Then, they were given a forecast and told to estimate what the output would be for the next few days.

Student Relito Barrerro "nailed it," his teacher said, with accurate estimates of lower production on rainy and overcast days followed by more output when the sun was shining.

"I think it makes sense," student Wyatt Pennebaker said, to combat rising electricity costs with a solar array on the school rooftop.

His teacher agreed "it's a pretty logical outcome."

"Big flat roof," Bergman said. "Might as well use it."

©2024 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.