HEC announces plan to sell solar energy from Acorn Drive plant

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

Energy from the sun will be available to residential customers of the Harrisonburg Electric Commission sometime this summer, albeit at a little higher cost than energy from the grid, according to details published on the HEC website.

Customers will be able to purchase the solar energy in 50 kWh blocks for $5.75 per block, which is $1.50 more than the current cost of 50 kWh of electricity through HEC. Customers who subscribe for the maximum amount of solar energy through the “Friendly City Solar Program” would pay about $90 more a year for their electricity.

HEC General Manger Brian O’Dell said in an email Tuesday to The Citizen that HEC is adding a 3-cent-per-kilowatt-hour premium to the solar energy because it is more expensive than the grid power it will replace. 

HEC customers pay about 1.5 cents per kWh in fuel costs for energy that is produced at energy plants powered by fossil fuels. HEC buys that power and passes those costs on to customers. 

Ultimately, customers who choose to buy the solar-generated electricity will pay less than that 3-cents per kWh rate because there are no fuel charges associated with the generation of solar power.

The Friendly City Solar energy will be produced at a solar farm to be constructed on Acorn Drive in Harrisonburg. Dominion Energy will own the plant and HEC expects to purchase 3 million kWh annually from the facility for resale to its customers.

O’Dell said in the email that one of the permits needed to construct the solar farm was issued last week and another from the state is expected soon.

“We would expect the contractor to be on site within a couple of weeks,” he said. “Substantial completion is still scheduled for the June/July timeframe.”

Customers will be limited to purchasing 25% of their energy from the solar program to make it widely available. 

During an HEC board meeting in January, O’Dell said restricting the amount customers can purchase to 25% of their monthly usage will allow for 1,000 participants based on an average monthly usage of 1,000 kWh.

If the cap was 50% and all participants signed up for that amount, the program could provide enough power for just 500 customers.

“If the project does not get fully subscribed, we would set up options that would allow those who want to increase their subscription amount to do that,” he said.

HEC board member Maria Papadakis said at the January meeting that she is optimistic HEC will get 1,000 participants.

 “This is not something that I think we’re going to struggle to sell,” she said.

One of the selling points will be a 25-year fixed rate on the solar energy. That portion of a customer’s bill will not fluctuate. However, if a customer uses less energy than what is being purchased through the solar program, that amount will not decrease. 

“You don’t want to subscribe to more on a monthly basis than what you use on a monthly basis. That’s your minimum bill,” O’Dell said at the January meeting.  

The HEC’s website includes a link to a survey that customers can use to express interest in participating in the program. It states that more information will be provided as the project gets closer to launching this summer.

“We are currently receiving feedback from our customers and gauging interest to help us finetune a couple of details related to the program,” O’Dell said Tuesday. “Our goal is to have that finalized within the next couple of months and roll the program out officially around June.”

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