Fairfax County moved to significantly ramp up its use of solar energy on Dec. 10, announcing that it has awarded contracts to install solar photovoltaic arrays at 113 county government, park, and school facilities.
The largest such initiative undertaken to date by a local municipality in Virginia, the solar power purchase agreements went to three teams of providers after the county government and Fairfax County Public Schools spent six months fielding, evaluating, and negotiating proposals in a joint request for proposals process.
“Fairfax County is excited to take a major step toward a more sustainable energy future,” Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill said. “Implementing on-site solar will hopefully lower our electricity costs as we support our Board of Supervisors adopted priorities…We are committed to making choices around energy resources that benefit the residents of Fairfax County now and in the future.”
Under a solar power purchase agreement, providers install, operate, and maintain solar arrays that they own at no upfront cost to the customer, who, in exchange, buys electricity from the provider, usually at a fixed rate.
Fairfax County awarded contracts for roof-mounted and canopy or carport-mounted installations to solar provider teams with Sigora Solar and Standard Solar, Ipsun Sun and SunLight General Capital, and Sun Tribe Solar and BrightSuite, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy.
Collectively, the awarded PPAs could save Fairfax County over $60 million in electricity costs that could be instead invested in energy efficiency and other renewable energy opportunities that would generate further savings, according to the county.
Fairfax County projects that, over the full contract terms, the new solar facilities will generate approximately 1.73 million megawatt hours of clean, renewable energy, roughly equivalent to the amount of electricity used by 213,680 homes in a single year.
The initiative will also help Fairfax County prevent the emission of more than 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is comparable to the greenhouse gases emitted by 260,155 vehicles over the course of a year.
Because they only require customers to pay for electricity, rather than the actual solar facilities, power purchase agreements are becoming an increasingly favored option for localities looking to utilize more solar energy, according to Sun Tribe Solar chief technical officer Taylor Brown.
Sun Tribe Solar partnered with Dominion Energy’s BrightSuite to become one of the recipients of contracts from Fairfax County.
“Nearly every week, we hear from a local government or school system looking for solar solutions,” Brown said. “Fairfax County’s ambitious plan here is a reminder that Virginia’s solar market is growing rapidly. We’re excited to work with their first-class team across the county to make a positive impact on every community.”
Fairfax County had been working on a solar power purchase agreement initiative for a while, but its full scope was not determined until earlier this year after the county government approached the school system about including school facilities in its request for proposals.
The county public school system started experimenting with solar power in 1977 when Terraset Elementary School in Reston opened and incorporated heat collector tubes that captured energy from the sun, but since then, only five other schools have installed solar equipment.
Some flashing school zone signs along Fairfax County roadways are also solar-powered, Fairfax County Public Schools says.
Initially, the Fairfax County School Board passed an amendment to FCPS’s Fiscal Year 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Program on Jan. 24 that would add three school buildings to the county government RFP.
The approved pilot program would have installed solar arrays at Chantilly High School, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and Mason Crest Elementary School that were expected to generate at least 76 percent of the energy each school needs to operate.
However, conversations with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, as well as pressure from environmental advocacy groups, convinced school officials to take a more aggressive approach.
Fairfax County ultimately issued an RFP in June with 113 eligible sites, including 87 school buildings, several park facilities, and one Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority site, for the initiative’s first phase.
“These were just to give the solar vendors who were bidding on this an idea of what’s possible,” Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination director Kambiz Agazi said. “But I can tell you right now that there are some facilities, like in our wastewater treatment plant and other places around the county, that are planning to add their buildings too.”
The power purchase agreements will supplement ongoing efforts to improve the sustainability and energy efficiency of FCPS, school board chair Karen Corbett Sanders says.
The school division has reduced its energy use system-wide by 14.5 percent annually since 2014, resulting in a cost savings of more than $31 million.
FCPS won first place in the academic category of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council’s 2019 Virginia Energy Efficiency Leadership Awards in November for its Get2Green program, which encourages energy conservation as well as environmental stewardship and education.
Using solar power purchase agreements will help FCPS lower its energy costs, allowing the division to focus funds on the classroom, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand says.
“We look forward to working with the county to expand this initiative to as many FCPS schools and facilities as possible,” Brabrand said. “Our solar investment will also become an amazing learning lab for our students to reinforce the value and sustainability of solar energy.”
Fairfax County’s contracts with the three solar PPA vendors are rideable, meaning neighboring jurisdictions can use the same rates and terms to install solar equipment on their own sites.
Agazi says the county included that provision in its agreements to reflect the need to coordinate with the rest of Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change.
Adding the actual solar arrays at each site will proceed like a construction project with phases for design, permitting and installation. Agazi hopes the first solar panels will start coming up within the next six months.
However, efforts to increase solar generation in Virginia face a significant obstacle in the form of a statewide capacity cap on solar electricity generation through power purchase agreements.
Fairfax County’s solar initiative comes under a pilot program that the Virginia State Corporation Commission established in 2013 to permit solar power purchase agreements in Dominion Energy territory, but Virginia law currently limits the pilot program to 50 megawatts for all projects.
“As of today, we only have about seven megawatts left statewide…within Dominion's service territories,” Agazi said. “So, yeah, that is a huge problem.”
Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) and State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-9th) introduced legislation to remove the net-metering cap to their respective chambers for the Virginia General Assembly’s 2019 session.
Known colloquially as the Solar Freedom Bill, the legislation died in both chambers’ commerce and labor committees, with a narrow 7-8 defeat in the House and a 10-3 vote on the Senate side to pass it by indefinitely.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors included a removal of barriers that impede the use of third-party power purchase agreements for renewable energy in the 2020 legislative program it adopted on Dec. 3.
Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, who will serve as the board’s chairman next year, also raised the issue in front of the county’s General Assembly delegation during a work session on Tuesday.
“Our state delegation has been made aware, and we’re going to be making a very strong legislative push to get that cap either raised significantly or eliminated,” Agazi said.
Dominion Energy says that enrollment and activity in the SCC pilot program was initially “quite low,” making an increase in the cap on capacity unnecessary, but the utility is open to discussing changes now that participation in the pilot has increased.
“We remain committed to working with stakeholders throughout the Commonwealth to develop an approach to responsibly expand the current 50-megawatt cap in a way that is equitable to both participating and non-participating customers,” Dominion Energy Northern Virginia media and community relations manager Peggy Fox said in a statement.
As a partner with Sun Solar Tribe on some of the PPAs awarded by Fairfax County, Dominion says it saw the initiative as an opportunity to save money for customers while also furthering its own sustainability and clean energy goals.
According to its website, the company plans to add 3,000 megawatts of new solar and wind generation in Virginia by 2022 with an overall target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“Dominion Energy is committed to helping customers meet their sustainability goals,” Fox said. “We are proud to be a trusted energy partner with Fairfax County as they work to reduce their carbon footprint.”