HEC looking to add subscribers to new Friendly City Solar Program

A picture of a yard sign advertising the Friendly City Solar program
Customers who sign up for the Friendly City Solar Program receive a yard sign like this one outside the HEC’s building on North Liberty Street. (Photo by Eric Gorton)

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

More than 150 Harrisonburg Electric Commission customers have signed up to purchase solar energy through the utility’s new Friendly City Solar Program, the HEC board learned Tuesday.

General Manager Brian O’Dell said about 90% of the 153 subscribers have signed up to get 25% of their energy from solar, the maximum allowed per customer for now. The energy will come from a newly constructed solar farm at Acorn Drive and North Liberty Street, which could be operational by the end of next week.

Getting the plant operational is a couple weeks behind schedule, O’Dell said.

HEC opened registration for Friendly City Solar through its website on Aug. 17.

“We are pretty much where I would have expected to have been at this point, based on the survey responses we received early in the process,” O’Dell wrote in an email to The Citizen on Wednesday.

HEC received 213 completed surveys, he said.

He told the board Tuesday that if the program is not fully subscribed in the next few months, HEC may have to look for other opportunities to sell the power.

“We are continuing to market down the various channels to increase our subscription rates and we’ll keep an eye on that,” he said. “I would think we would give it a few months and see where we’re at. And then if there’s some additional capacity, we might want to go a different direction.”

In previous meetings, O’Dell has told the board that one option for increasing the amount of energy purchased through the program is to allow customers to purchase more than 25% of their energy through Friendly City Solar. 

The program was designed so up to 1,000 residential customers using an average of 1,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per month could get 25% of their energy from Friendly City Solar.

In his email Wednesday, O’Dell stated it’s possible the program could be offered to commercial customers at some point.

“If it were, the program may look different than what is offered to our residential customers,” he wrote. It’s too soon to say how it would be different, he said.

The energy produced at Acorn and not sold through the Friendly City Solar Program will be added to the other power that HEC purchases from Dominion Energy and distributed throughout the city, he wrote. 

HEC plans to purchase 3 million kWh annually from the solar plant, which is owned by Dominion.

The solar energy costs 3 cents more per kWh than regular grid energy because it costs Dominion more to produce it, O’Dell said. Customers who purchase the solar energy in 50 kWh blocks will pay $5.75 per block, which is $1.50 more than the current cost of 50 kWh of electricity through HEC. Customers who use an average of 1,000 kWh per month and subscribe for the maximum amount of solar energy through the “Friendly City Solar” program will pay about $90 more a year for their electricity.

“If the full capacity of the project isn’t subscribed, then there would be some additional expenses not recovered that would be included in our overall cost of power,” he said.

A benefit of the program is that the kWh cost will be fixed for the next 25 years and exempt from price fluctuations of regular grid energy. Much of that fluctuation this year is because of increased fuel costs to run generating plants powered by fossil fuels. Dominion passes those costs on to HEC, which adds them to its customers’ bills.

HEC bills currently include a 2.26-cent charge per kWh for fuel. For the average residential customer who uses 1,000 kWh a month, that fuel charge amounts to $22.64. From October 2021 through March, HEC customers were charged 1.439 cents per kWh for fuel, or about $14.39 a month based on 1,000 kWh.

In September 2021, HEC charged less than half-a-cent per kWh for fuel, resulting in a monthly charge of about $4.39 for average users. That means a customer using 1,000 kWh a month is paying $18.25 more than 1,000 kWh cost in September 2021, all because of increased fuel charges.

Among the first subscribers to Friendly City Solar is former HEC board member Daphyne Thomas. The board discussed providing a solar option to customers during her time on the board, from 2014-2020.

“I thought this was a good project that at least got us going,” she said in a telephone interview. “You have to start somewhere.”

Thomas said she supports having a clean energy option and because she is retired and unsure how long she will stay in the area, Friendly City Solar makes more sense for her than having solar panels installed on her home.

“It’s a long-term commitment to get your dollars back once you do that,” she said. “My electric bills are next to nothing now, so putting solar on there, I’m not going to save a ton of money by doing it. So what can I do to contribute to reducing that carbon footprint? At least I can buy into the program and support it that way.”

Scott Jost, another subscriber, said in a telephone interview that he’s deeply concerned about the climate crisis and happy to have an opportunity to shift some of his family’s energy consumption to sustainable sources.

Because his home is surrounded by shade trees, including a large oak, signing up for Friendly City Solar is an easier decision than adding solar panels to his roof.

“It’s hard to justify cutting down trees, especially that big oak tree, to make solar viable on the roof,” he said.

Signing up for the program was also “super easy,” he said. “You just have to fill out a little web form. It takes about five minutes.”

He also said he probably would have signed up to get more than 25% of his energy from Friendly City Solar if that were an option.

O’Dell said HEC has marketed the program through emails to customers, bill stuffers and ads on TV and radio. The utility, which has 17,974 residential customers, plans to beef up the marketing by launching some digital ads and using social media, he said.

Subscribers will get a sign to put in their yard advertising that they support Friendly City Solar.

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