By Will Driscoll
Clearing a legal hurdle that may affect other Virginia school systems, Arlington Public Schools has created a new type of purchasing authority so it may enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs) for solar power.
Arlington’s School Board created that authority by amending its purchasing resolution at its April 20, 2017 meeting, by unanimous vote. The school system staff plans to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for solar power in October, and complete its first PPA project by September 2018, according to a draft timetable.
Arlington officials concluded that the previous version of its purchasing resolution, which satisfied the requirements of the Virginia Public Procurement Act, did not permit procuring construction or capital projects through “alternate methods” such as power purchase agreements (PPAs).
Arlington Public Schools (APS) officials determined that such alternate methods of procurement must meet the requirements of Virginia’s Public-Private Educational Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA).
Specifically, according to the approved amendment, “Section 56-575.16 of the PPEA requires that APS may not consider any Unsolicited PPEA Proposal nor solicit PPEA Bids or Proposals for a Qualifying Project until APS has adopted and made publicly available guidelines that are sufficient to enable APS to comply with the PPEA. These Guidelines are adopted by the [School] Board for the purpose of satisfying that requirement.”
APS purchasing office staff and legal counsel prepared the proposed amendment, modeling it on procedures outlined in the PPEA. The new provisions, now incorporated in the APS Purchasing Resolution, call for competitive bidding on any PPA project, and require School Board approval before any PPA agreement is signed.
“This is a really big deal for us,” said school board member Barbara Kanninen. “We are opening up the opportunity to have solar power for Arlington Public Schools. That’s really forward thinking, it’s smart energy use and I’m fully supportive of this.”
School board member James Lander noted the opportunity “to walk the walk that we talk when we talk about being a progressive environment, a forward-thinking community.” He added that solar on schools “will allow instructional opportunities for our students.”
In public comments prior to the vote, Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that the group’s 150 members in Arlington “strongly support the effort of the Arlington School Board to enter into power purchase agreements for solar.” He added, “We’ve seen in schools where this happens, children get interested in renewable energy and the school systems develop programs that help educate the kids.” Will Driscoll (author of this article) of Arlington 350 noted that prices for installed commercial solar declined 20 percent in 2016, creating an opportunity for the school district to save money with solar. Noting that the school board must approve any PPA agreement before it may be signed, and could reject any agreement they find unsatisfactory, he said “we have nothing to lose, and much to gain.”
The new provisions provide an opportunity for solar contractors to submit an unsolicited proposal to APS, along with a proposal review fee of $2,500. Any such proposal may prompt the school district to undertake a solar project, in which case the school district would solicit competing bids, in accordance with PPEA guidelines.
The provisions call for APS to hire “qualified professionals” from outside the APS staff to review all solicited proposals. These professionals may include an architect, professional engineer, or certified public accountant. APS will also hold a public hearing prior to entering into any PPA agreement.
To date, Arlington has installed a 497 kilowatt solar system on Discovery Elementary School and a 90 kilowatt system on Wakefield High School, both through outright purchase during the construction phase for each school.