While solar farm adds clean energy to Harrisonburg power grid, effort to sell it lags

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

In its first 10 months of operation, the solar energy plant at the corner of Acorn Drive and North Liberty Street generated more than 2.6 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity — enough to power 224 homes for one year.

Those figures come from a dashboard that tracks the output from the 9-acre solar farm, which started putting energy on the Harrisonburg electric grid in early November 2022.

Consisting of more than 4,000 crystalline silicon bifacial panels that pivot to stay in line with the sun throughout each day, the plant can generate as much as 1.43 megawatts during peak operating times and is expected to produce approximately 3 million kWh annually. That’s enough electricity to power 250 homes based on average home usage of 1,000 kWh per month.

Dominion Energy owns the plant and contracted with Sun Tribe, a Charlottesville-based solar energy company, to build it in 2022 on city-owned land.

Dominion has declined to say what it cost to build the plant.

“We’d prefer not to divulge that information publicly because this is a solar facility developed for one customer,” company spokesman Tim Eberly said in an email.

In addition to the solar panels, the plant consists of other high-tech equipment to turn sunlight into power. That includes: 

  • inverters that convert direct current (DC) electricity that solar panels generate into alternating current (AC) electricity, which the electrical grid uses.
  • metering equipment.
  • and a transformer. 

The Harrisonburg Electric Commission owns the transformer while the rest of the infrastructure belongs to Dominion. Dominion is responsible for maintaining the site, which mostly consists of making sure vegetation doesn’t grow high enough to obstruct the panels, Eberly said.

“During the growing season, we typically mow and manage the vegetation once a month. But we also monitor the facility remotely,” he said. “If an inverter motor failed, we’d receive a remote monitoring alert, and would dispatch some operations team members to the site to investigate. In addition, we will conduct periodic maintenance and inspections, the latter of which generally occur about twice a year.”

HEC General Manager Brian O’Dell has said the energy from Acorn Drive costs more than what HEC pays for regular grid energy, which comes from other Dominion power plants around the state. Most of those plants burn natural gas to produce the power.

Dominion and HEC have declined to say how much HEC is paying for the solar energy produced at Acorn Drive. 

The Citizen filed an open records request with HEC aimed at obtaining the figure, but HEC provided a contract with the amount redacted. O’Dell cited a section of the Virginia code stating that the figure is exempt from disclosure because it is “proprietary information, voluntarily provided by private business pursuant to a promise of confidentiality.”

Eberly said Dominion would not provide the figure “because the rate is a negotiated price with a single entity,” which in this case is HEC. 

In the HEC budget for FY 2023-24, which the HEC board approved in May, the 3 million kWh the utility purchases from Acorn Solar is part of the total amount of power it expects to buy for the year, 738.6 million kWh. The budget does not give a breakdown of what HEC is paying for regular grid energy and what it is paying for solar from Acorn. The two costs are lumped together in the 2.1 cents per kWh HEC is paying Dominion for power.

Zach Nyce, manager of engineering for HEC, said it costs Dominion more to produce energy at the Acorn plant than at large base load plants because it’s not as efficient to generate power on such a small scale.

The 3 million kWh from Acorn will account for just 0.4% of the power HEC will purchase from Dominion this year.

HEC is recovering some of the extra cost it pays for energy from Acorn through its Friendly City Solar program, where customers who want to support clean energy can pay $1.25 more per 50 kWh block than what they pay for regular grid energy for up to 50% of their average monthly usage.

In its marketing of Friendly City Solar, HEC says the benefits include supporting solar energy without adding a home solar system, not paying a fuel charge that is added to the charge for regular grid energy and getting a guaranteed energy price on the solar energy for 25 years.

Despite the marketing efforts, just a little more than 40% of the energy being produced at Acorn Drive is being purchased by Friendly City Solar customers. 

When HEC launched Friendly City Solar last fall, it capped the limit customers could subscribe to at 25% of their average monthly energy usage to give as many people as possible a chance to support it. With that limit in place, the program could accommodate 1,000 customers all subscribing for the maximum amount.

With interest falling short of that target, the HEC board voted in May to allow subscribers to pay for up to 50% of their average monthly energy through Friendly City Solar. The board has also discussed opening the program up at some point to commercial customers. For now, it is only available to residential customers.

Board chairman Chris Weaver, an HEC customer and a Friendly City Solar subscriber, said in an email in March that he wasn’t sure how the program would be received when it was offered.

“I was expecting more subscriptions initially than what was realized,” he said. “That expectation wasn’t based on anything specifically. Maybe it was solely an overly optimistic hope, especially since I was, and continue to be, in support of the Friendly City Solar project.”

In an email in August, O’Dell said he too was expecting more interest in Friendly City Solar “given what I perceived the high levels of interest in renewables to be here in Harrisonburg. I do however, think we will continue to see the subscription rate increase over time, as more customers recognize the value of the program.”

Jeff Heie, director of a local solar nonprofit and a Friendly City Solar subscriber, said HEC might generate more interest in the program by highlighting the reduced greenhouse gas emissions that result from getting electricity from solar.

“But I’m afraid that HEC currently does not embrace the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they are in the business of selling primarily fossil-fuel generated electricity,” he said in an email. “HEC’s mandate in the city code is to be orderly, economic and businesslike. They do not currently view the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be a directive within their mandate.”

As of Sept. 6, the dashboard providing stats for the plant on Acorn Drive showed that it has saved 2.43 million kilograms of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of what would be generated driving more than 4.5 million miles in a family sedan.

Heie also said that he’s grateful to support clean energy by being a Friendly City subscriber, but “annoyed to be participating in the false narrative that solar is more expensive. It’s only more expensive if Dominion owns it.”

Eberly said despite being small, the Acorn Drive plant helps Dominion’s effort to transition to a zero-carbon electric grid by 2050. “Any new solar facilities increase our renewable energy footprint. … Over the next 15 years, we’re going to develop enough solar facilities to power 4 million homes. So every new solar farm helps.”

Dominion has no immediate plans to enter arrangements similar to the one with HEC, Eberly said.

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