Solar schools, climate resilience, energy efficiency: local governments are now getting involved in energy planning – whether they feel ready or not. Some places have adopted climate targets that require them to look for ways to reduce carbon emissions; others just want to save money on high energy bills.
Virginia has removed the barriers to renewable energy and has begun pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into energy efficiency programs thanks to laws like Solar Freedom, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act Virginia part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative ( RGGI).
But even a positive political environment does not level all barriers. At all levels of government – including homes and businesses, for that matter – energy conservation projects are stalled by confusing information, lack of money or funding, layers of opaque bureaucracy, or fear of uncertain outcomes.
Attacks on Virginia’s clean energy transition framework and utility reform get most of the ink during this legislature, but some less noticed bills are focused on moving forward by removing stumbling blocks to clean energy and identifying funding.
I briefly mentioned some of them in my article round up the bill last week incl Joint Resolution 545 of the House of Representatives by Briana Sewell, D-Prince William, asking the Department of Energy to recommend ways to overcome barriers that are preventing local governments and their constituents from buying clean energy. There are also Senate Act 1333 by Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, to support local clean energy projects for low and middle income residents. Senate Act 1419 by David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, would give retailers choice when purchasing renewable energy, and Senate Act 949 by Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, would allow residents to access low-cost public finance for clean energy.
The joint solar bills I covered last week also allow local governments to get involved. And while I’m not tracking them myself, there are other bills that encourage locals resilience planningGive municipalities the authority to require charging infrastructure for electric vehicles or to support transit solutions.
Mainly – but not exclusively! — This year’s bills trying to kick the ball toward clean energy are coming from Democrats, a bad sign when the House and Governor are Republicans. I’ve seen many bills die in committee for reasons that have little to do with the bill, and Governor Youngkin appears to have vetoed bills last year “personal and political move” against the Patron Senator of the Bills. It’s a short session again this year, so if a bill is complicated or has opposition from favored industries, it goes into committee to strike against it.
But many of these bills encourage private investment or save taxpayers money, which fortunately are still bipartisan priorities. And some energy innovations are now mainstream across Virginia, in both red and blue counties. Among them are solar schools.
So let’s take a closer look at one piece of legislation, the study on solar school roofs, that’s taking center stage Senate Act 848 by Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and House bill 1852 by Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun.
I wish they could all be solar schools
In the summer of 2021 I was dismayed to learn that the City of Norfolk School Board had been told that none of their brand new schools could be fitted with solar panels as the roofs were not designed to take the extra weight. As a result, Norfolk could not do what dozens of school districts across Virginia have done: install solar panels to provide some or all of the energy used by the school, saving taxpayers money and giving students convenient access to a fast-growing company to enable technology with great career potential.
What a missed opportunity, and yet Norfolk was not alone. I soon learned of a new school in Richmond where the educators were very keen on solar energy, but the steep pitched roof of the main building was not suitable. All that was left was a flat-roofed wing that could not accommodate enough panels to support more than a fraction of the school’s needs.
From talking to architects and solar developers, I know that building a school with a roof that can accommodate solar panels doesn’t have to be an additional expense; basically you just have to plan for it. Wyck Knoxthe architect who (among other things) designed Arlington’s two net-zero energy schools says that even building a school that can produce as much energy as it uses doesn’t have to cost more if you just put your mind to it design process approaches with this goal.
Designing a school with a solar-capable roof pays off when the school district enters into a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a solar company that installs and owns the solar system. The school only pays for the electricity it produces, usually at a lower rate than what the utility charges.
The financing options have expanded since this year. The Inflation Reduction Act allows tax-exempt entities such as local government and schools to do this Claim a federal tax credit for renewable energy and batteries directly.
So why aren’t all schools solar schools? Answers may vary from district to district, but usually it’s because no one thought of it in time, or they don’t know how to proceed, or they don’t have the right people on board. A persistent facility manager can hold up a project indefinitely.
The US Department of Energy says energy is the second largest cost factor for schools based on teacher salaries. Taxpayers should be able to expect their school districts to adopt strategies such as on-site solar panels that reduce energy bills.
Personally, I support that school districts at least analyze whether solar roofs could save them money before committing to non-solar roof designs. However, House Republicans scuttled an attempt to pass such a requirement last year. And some school officials say it’s not necessary because they want to do solar; You just need help with the process.
In this sense, Senate Act 848 and House bill 1852 task the School Construction and Modernization Commission developing recommendations to help schools integrate renewable energy into the construction or renovation of schools.
The Commission itself recommended several legal texts that are now before the General Assembly, including some on construction financing. That should make it easier to incorporate solar recommendations into their other work.
Favola said, “I am extremely excited about the opportunity to provide technical assistance to school systems to integrate solar and other renewable energy components into their renovated and new builds.”
You and I both, Senator. you and me both
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