Possible RCPS infrastructure changes

Steve Frey

What do schools in Middlesex County, King William, Fluvanna, Powhatan, Arlington, Charlottesville, and others have in common? They use solar energy to power their schools and save money for their communities.

The Radford City School Board heard an informative presentation at its May 14 meeting by Sun Tribe Solar, a Charlottesville energy company, about creating a solar power agreement that would save the school district millions of dollars in energy costs.

At the same meeting, the board discussed the possibility of accepting the Arnheim House and about three acres of land from the Partners for Excellence Foundation that has been renovating it.

Both of these moves have the potential to benefit the school division immensely.

The solar contract would place photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of the high school and intermediate school. The Sun Tribe representative said Belle Heth’s irregular roof design is not conducive to panel placement, and McHarg would have to replace its old roof before panels could go up.

The solar company, which only works with commercial customers such as school divisions, would supply all of the panels and components, labor, and maintenance over the 25-30 year course of the contract. In return, the school division would pay a set fee, which would save it about $29,821 in first-year costs and about two million dollars over the next 25 years. The savings are based on the division avoiding 3.08 percent average yearly increases in electricity costs that have been the trend in the division over the last 15 years and are projected to continue into the future, plus the reduced price of solar power.

There is also an educational ingredient. The solar company would present grants for interested teachers to receive energy lessons, curriculum, and children’s solar kits to share with their classes. The students could even monitor solar production daily through a specially designed kiosk in the school.

Of course, the use of solar power would be an excellent way for the school division to model environmental sustainability, too.

Sun Tribe believes the school division can lower its energy usage significantly, and, as electricity use is reduced, perhaps to net zero, the company would make its money from the fixed fee the school board would pay.

It would be a win-win situation for the school division and the company.

Just a few questions: What will happen after the 25-30 year life of the panel—simple renewal and replacement of equipment? The city is in the middle of a long-term contract with Appalachian Power that is going to last for about nine more years. If the city purchases too few kilowatt hours, it would have to pay a surcharge, so the impact of significantly reduced kilowatt hours used by the school division could affect the city contract. Has that been considered?

It is too bad that the city has that long-term contract. If it could renegotiate a new contract with Appalachian Power, it could begin putting its own solar panels in place and start generating some of its own energy. All of the savings would go directly to the city, which means current funds budgeted for paying Appalachian Power for electricity could be used for other things like, well, schools, roads, recreation (Did somebody say community pool or amphitheater?), community services or other needs.

With the current proposal, the school division, of course, sees that two million in savings that could be used to improve facilities or bolster the division’s budget.

The Radford City School Board is also discussing accepting the Arnheim House (Dr. Radford’s old home) adjacent to the high school. The house has been used in the past for classes such as home economics, art, Spanish and other subjects. In addition to the house, there are about three acres of land that could possibly be used to build the division’s planned Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.

The Partners for Excellence Foundation has committed to continuing to provide funds to the district for future renovations to Arnheim House. Radford City Schools has a goal of providing additional classes, perhaps for health sciences such as nursing, and the Arnheim House could provide the room needed for that program. It sounds like a perfect synergy.

Will the school division proceed with the solar plan? Will the city council support the project? Will the city consider renegotiating the Appalachian Power contract in place now and move the entire municipality toward energy savings that can be translated into tremendous budget opportunities? Will Arnheim House provide the room needed for a nursing/health services program for Radford City students? Will the new acreage someday house the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning?

Stay tuned!

Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.

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