Fairfax County Public Schools took a step toward embracing renewable energy on Jan. 24 when the Fairfax County School Board unanimously approved a proposal to install solar panels at three school buildings.

The solar arrays will be installed at Chantilly High School, Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and Mason Crest Elementary School in Annandale. The goal is for the panels to generate at least 76 percent of the energy needed to operate each school.

Proposed by Hunter Mill District representative Patricia Hynes as an amendment to FCPS’s Fiscal Year 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Program, the motion’s passage gave affirmation to students, community groups, and environmental activists who have spent years pushing Fairfax County and its public school system to adopt climate-friendly policies and practices.

“For anybody concerned about how fossil fuel pollution threatens our future and the world that our young people will be living in, this is a major accomplishment,” Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions co-founder Scott Peterson said.

FACS, a group of local faith communities dedicated to addressing climate change, and other environmental groups like the Sierra Club have advocated for FCPS to add more solar panels to its energy network since at least March 2014.

Only five Fairfax County schools, including Thomas Jefferson, currently utilize solar energy, according to an FCPS renewable energy report given to the school board at a work session on Jan. 14.

Activists found a supporter in Hynes, who says transitioning the school system from carbon-based fuels to renewable energy has been a personal priority since she joined the school board in 2012.

“We have a responsibility to current generations and certainly the kids that we…serve to do whatever we can to allow them to grow up into a habitable and healthy planet,” Hynes said. “So, we have an obligation to be active in climate action for that reason, but also just to be fiscally responsible.”

Declining costs for renewables like solar power makes those energy sources increasingly viable as the use and production of coal drops, though the U.S. is still expected to produce record-high levels of oil and natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2019 report.

Fairfax County has made moves toward becoming more energy efficient with the adoption of an operational energy strategy in July 2018, but calls for a significant shift to renewable sources have at times struggled to gain traction.

Hynes attributes that lag to the number of other issues competing for attention and resources.

FCPS continues to face complaints of overcrowding, and the FY 2020-2024 CIP indicates that more than 750 temporary classrooms are currently in use. The number of trailers has dropped by nearly 200 units over the past five years, but that rate is still inadequate to meet the school board’s goal of eliminating all temporary classrooms in the next 10 years.

FCPS also remains a decade behind in its schedule for major maintenance and renovation with new projects joining the list every year.

“We do not have sufficient capital funding every year to keep up with the needs of the school system, so anything that requires capital funding and is not going directly into classroom space is hard to justify,” Hynes said.

Though FCPS Department of Facilities and Transportation Services began conducting feasibility studies with solar companies in Virginia in 2015, the push for solar energy gained momentum in May when the school board directed staff to develop a report on the school system’s current use of renewable energy and possible actions that it could take going forward.

The earlier feasibility studies identified 10 schools as possible options for solar energy based on factors like age, building design, and the amount of sun versus shade that they receive.

The FCPS staff report on renewable energy recommended that the school system use a power purchase agreement to reduce the upfront capital investment needed to install solar panels.

“If we want to move as quickly as we should, in my opinion, in continuing to convert more schools over the next several years, we may need to make some capital investments,” Hynes noted. “I think we need to work with the county on dedicated funding for that.”

The board gave staff approval to put out a request for proposals with Chantilly High, Thomas Jefferson, and Mason Crest Elementary as the proposed recipients on Jan. 14.

Along with the CIP amendment, Hynes successfully introduced a follow-on motion on Jan. 24 calling on board chair and Mount Vernon District representative Karen Corbett Sanders and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova to schedule a work session to establish a joint task force on climate action.

The school board recommended a set of priorities for the task force, including setting carbon reduction goals for 2030 and 2050 and developing a climate change community resilience plan.

The task force could also help determine a reasonable timeline and funding requirements for FCPS to continue expanding its use of solar panels and other renewable energy sources.

“We’re very hopeful on how this is finally now moving after so long when it seemed like nothing was happening,” Peterson said.

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