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School solar power projects starting

Solar power system installations are slated to start soon at seven Isle of Wight County Schools.

The Isle of Wight School Board unanimously approved the contract with Sigora Solar on April 9. Hardy Elementary and Westside Elementary will not have solar power systems, as plans are under way to replace those buildings.

Christopher Coleman, the division’s executive director of support services and operations, said the work is set to begin on or about Dec. 17 at Georgie D. Tyler Middle School in Windsor and on Dec. 31 at Carrsville Elementary. The work will continue into 2021, with installation slated to start at Carrollton Elementary on Jan. 8; at Smithfield Middle on Jan. 16; at Smithfield High on Jan. 28; at Windsor High on Feb. 13; and at Windsor Elementary on March 16.

The exact number of panels and configuration of the system is specific to each school building.

COVID-19 has not delayed this project, because “97% of it is outside,” Coleman said. Of the remaining work, 2% is in mechanical areas of school buildings where students wouldn’t be present, leaving just a small part of work that might need to take place in student areas. Anyone who does need to enter the school buildings to work on the project will follow the division’s health guidelines to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Solar-related financial savings will be long-term rather than immediate. “I don’t want to lead anyone down the road of thinking we’re going to get cash back every single month,” Coleman said. “There will be savings, but we still will have an electric bill.”

Potential savings will come through a power purchase agreement. What this means is that the school division doesn’t have to pay anything out of pocket for the operation or maintenance of the solar arrays. Through the contract, Isle of Wight Public Schools will be able to purchase energy produced.

Renewable energy power purchase agreements also provide financial savings because the rates are often lower than the current utility rates. And in addition to the economic savings, the solar projects also bring other benefits, such as an opportunity for students to have onsite science, technology, engineering and math learning opportunities, as well as reducing the organization’s carbon footprint, according to information from a project partner provided by the school division.

According to the division, the electricity rate for the solar-produced energy begins at 0.068 cents per kilowatt hour, while the current cost for electricity produced by Dominion Energy averages 0.0995 cents per kilowatt hour. Over the 20-year power-purchase agreement, the school system forecasts saving more than $3 million.

“We were going to do a live groundbreaking ceremony even though the panels aren’t going on the ground — they’re going on the roof — but the governor’s announcement sort of quashed doing a live one because of the limit of 25 people,” said division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs. Gov. Ralph Northam recently implemented stricter statewide measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Instead, Briggs said, “we’re going to create a virtual ceremony, a virtual groundbreaking and we’re going to push that out on our social media channels on Dec. 15.” The online ceremony will recognize the overall solar initiative. If the health circumstances allow, school leaders plan to hold an in-person ribbon cutting for the completed solar energy projects in the future.