By Will Driscoll
Arlington has solicited bids to add rooftop solar panel systems on at least five schools by 2020, for the largest solar-on-schools procurement to date in Virginia. School system staff designed the solicitation to achieve a competitive price for solar, and to avoid financial headaches such as roof repairs down the road.
The solicitation is structured to attract competition among bidders, yielding a competitive price, by:
• Specifying a larger project size of five schools (with an option for more), rather than the two schools initially envisioned; and
• Reducing the cost of bidding, by providing bidders with ready access to structural and electrical system information for each of the five schools, as well as each roof’s age, type, and warranty information.
The resulting bids will be easy to compare on price, because each bidder must set a fixed price at which it will sell solar electricity to the school system over a period of 15 to 25 years. This contrasts with many existing solar power purchase agreements that specify a starting price and an annual price increase—a more complex approach that is harder to compare across bids.*
The solar-on-schools project has been de-risked in several ways:
• Firms or teams are only eligible to bid if: 1) they have installed at least five similarly-sized projects; 2) they have operated and maintained at least five projects; and 3) they have appropriate contractor and electrical licenses.
• A bidder must state its plan for financing all stages of the project, and provide audited financial statements for the firm (which will be kept confidential).
• The selected contractor must operate and maintain the solar panel systems. (This provision is self-enforcing, since the contractor will only receive payment for the electricity that each system generates.)
• The contractor must specify a method for determining a buy-out price in case the school system chooses to terminate the contract “for convenience.”
Additional provisions address potential roof and durability issues:
• Ballasted systems are preferred, to eliminate roof penetrations that could leak.
• The use of ferrous metals, wood or plastic (e.g., in the solar panel racking system) is not permitted.
• The selected contractor must work with the obligor under any roof warranty to ensure that the warranty remains in effect.
• The contractor must repair any damage to the school caused by the system, including moisture damage.
• In the event that roof repair is needed due to aging of the existing roof, the contractor must remove the solar panel system and then replace it once the repair is completed, at no extra charge; the contractor’s price must account for this possibility.
Arlington’s solar solicitation follows an amendment to the school system’s purchasing resolution, unanimously approved by Arlington’s school board last spring, to permit the use of power purchase agreements under the requirements of Virginia’s Public-Private Educational Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002. (Members of Arlington 350 advocated for this resolution.)
Proposals are due from bidders in March, 2018. The school system’s purchasing resolution calls 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.
Any rooftop solar offer recommended by the selection committee will be presented at a public hearing, and must be approved by the school board before a contract is signed, per the school system’s purchasing resolution.
Solar installations are to be completed within two years of contract award. The school system may arrange with the selected offeror for solar on additional schools. (A draft timeline from last April anticipated the installation of solar PV systems on two schools in summer 2018.)
Statewide, Virginia could produce 32 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratories report. Given the increase in solar panel efficiency, from 16 percent assumed in the report to about 20 percent now, the current opportunity is correspondingly higher: we could get 40 percent of our electricity from rooftop solar. Virginia’s approximately 2,100 public schools, with unshaded roofs ideal for low-cost commercial scale solar, represent a promising component of that potential.
Credit is due to Arlington school system staff—in the facilities engineering, purchasing, and legal departments—for their work on the 113-page solicitation, and the amendment to the purchasing resolution that preceded it.
Climate-aware citizens in other communities may find Arlington’s solicitation to be a useful model for their own solar-on-schools initiatives.
*An Arlington bidder may additionally offer, as an alternative to its fixed price, an initial price and an annual price increase, which the school system may select at its discretion.
(Photo: Arlington’s Discovery Elementary School, showing the 497-kilowatt rooftop solar system in a satellite view. Source: Google Maps.)