Harrisonburg schools and HEC in talks for a solar project partnership

By Ryan Alessi

The Harrisonburg City Public Schools and the Harrisonburg Electric Commission are in the early stages of teaming up on a solar project that would allow students to learn about renewable energy up close. 

Brian O’Dell, general manager of the city-owned electric utility, announced the potential partnership to the five commission members at their Sept. 24 meeting.

“It looks like that we’ll be able to pursue an opportunity with them in some shape, form or fashion in order to promote solar within the school system and to partner with them,” O’Dell said. 

But he told the five-member commission that the potential partnership is in its infancy and even a rough sketch of what the project will entail — including whether it will involve one or two schools or be district-wide — won’t begin to take shape until he meets with school district leaders. He said he expects that meeting to happen as early as next week. 

“We haven’t nailed down anything specifically,” he said. 

This comes three months after a potential partnership dissolved between the school district and the private Staunton-based solar company, Secure Futures. The school district and Secure Futures had been working on a framework for building what would have been the largest solar array for any Virginia school system with enough solar powers spread over the roofs of five schools to generate 3.8 megawatts of power. But the deal fell apart when the school district and Secure Futures couldn’t agree on financial guarantees, as The Citizen reported in July.  

In a phone interview on Thursday, School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald said that any partnership with HEC won’t preclude the district from pursuing other solar and renewable energy projects with private companies.

She also said it was too early to discuss the scope of what the HEC and schools could work on together. But she said she’s looking forward to the meeting with O’Dell later this month. 

 “The school board is still committed to pushing as hard as we can to bring solar to HCPS,” she said.

For the HEC, joining forces with the schools addresses to goals for the municipal utility. It allows HEC to have a hand in encouraging renewable energy in a community that has a higher demand for it than most others in Virginia. And it satisfies a long-held goal of the utility to have a presence in local classrooms, O’Dell said. 

“It’s going to be good for us to show the community our commitment to renewables,” O’Dell said. “And it’s going to be good for the schools to be able to teach and put that into educational programming.”

“I like the educational component too,” added Daphyne Thomas, the HEC commission chair. 

O’Dell told the board he expects to present them with more details at the utility’s Oct. 22 meeting. 

HEC public comment rule

Also at last Tuesday’s HEC meeting, the five commission members approved a formal policy for allowing public comments at the utility’s monthly board meetings, which are held at 7 a.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 868 N. Liberty St.  

The HEC now will carve out up to 15 minutes for public comment, with each speaker limited to no more than three minutes. Topics should be limited to HEC-related matters, according to the policy. And the HEC will request people to notify the agency in advance. 

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