Council approves solar farm as well as bonuses for city workers

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The Harrisonburg City Council made a few steps toward increasing residents’ access to solar and wind energy on Tuesday night, as council members unanimously approved the lease for a solar farm on the north end of town, and adopted a resolution that aims to have 50% of the city’s electricity come from renewable energy by 2025. 

The planned 1.4 megawatt solar farm would be built and operated by Dominion Energy on city-owned land. The Harrisonburg Electric Commission already purchases electricity from Dominion Energy through an intermediary, the Virginia Municipal Electric Association, of which Harrisonburg is one of seven municipality members. 

Harrisonburg will be the sole beneficiary of the solar farm, which will essentially double the amount of solar energy currently produced in the city, the commission’s general manager, Brian O’Dell, told the council on Tuesday.

He said that a community solar program will be developed before the solar farm is expected to begin operations in the second half of 2021, which will allow residents to opt in and pay a “modest premium” to have some percentage of their electricity be supplied by the project. While the commission hasn’t ironed out details as to what portion of a home’s energy usage residents will be able to replace with solar, O’Dell said opting into the program might raise participants’ electricity bills by $7.50 per month. 

That will “help to pay for the project,” O’Dell said. But the electric commission could still lose a small amount of money on it.

Council Member Richard Baugh characterized the project as “fairly specific in scope,” but he said he thought “there are probably lots of people who would want to take advantage of it.”

“This program is for early adopters, and early adopters typically pay premiums, no matter what it is,” Council Member Chris Jones said. “The premium doesn’t sound like it’s outrageous or outlandish.”

“It’s a step … so let’s take it,” said Council Member George Hirschmann.

Mayor Deanna Reed agreed, calling it “a step that we need to take as a city.”

Later in the meeting, Baugh presented the “50 by 25” resolution to the council, which he co-authored with members of the grassroots organization 50 by 25 Harrisonburg. The resolution calls on the Harrisonburg Electric Commission to transition 50% of the city’s electricity use to solar and wind energy, with the hopes of reaching 100% by 2035.

The resolution is similar to a section that was cut from the city’s Environmental Action Plan last year, after city staff argued that the city does not have the authority to mandate those standards to the Harrisonburg Electric Commission.

In the meantime, though, the “50 by 25” resolution has been bolstered by state legislation. In April, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which requires Dominion Energy Virginia to go “100 percent carbon-free by 2045.”

Bonuses for city workers

The council also unanimously approved bonuses for city employees in recognition of their service through the pandemic. All full-time employees and part-time employees who work an average of at least five hours per week will receive a bonus in December based on their position, hire date, and number of hours worked: up to a maximum of $2,500 for some public safety personnel who were employed by July 1. 

“Our front line workers went out there in some very unique situations,” City Manager Eric Campbell said. “Trash still needed to be picked up. First responders still needed to respond. Water still needed to flow.”

“I think this is well deserved for all of our employees who keep our city moving,” Vice-Mayor Sal Romero said. 

The bonuses will cost the city about $1.3 million, according to city documents. 

Also in the meeting:

  • The council considered loosening restrictions on large gatherings to allow businesses and nonprofits to host events of up to 250 people, or up to 50% of a building’s capacity. Ultimately, the council decided to keep the cap of 50 people that was instituted in August. “I think we need to keep it as-is,” Reed said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.” The council unanimously approved rezoning and special use permit requests for a property on Pear Street, where Rock Homes LLC plans to build five townhouses.

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