Solar on schools advances with open source contracting

With every new solar-on-schools contract, more people learn how it’s done, share what they know, and make it easier for neighboring school districts to follow the same path. U.S. schools could host up to 30 gigawatts of solar (that’s 30,000 megawatts).

School board members raised legitimate concerns about a proposal to put solar on five schools in Arlington, Virginia. What would teachers and parents think, for example, if the school system put resources into solar that could instead be used to increase teacher salaries or buy new textbooks?  

The fact that a solar power purchase agreement (PPA) would have no capital cost, and could save on operating costs, met those concerns. After a meticulous procurement process, the school board voted unanimously to approve the selected PPA contract, largely because it would save the school district an estimated $4 million in operating costs over the 25-year contract. Each of the five schools will have an energy dashboard for teaching purposes.

The 2.5 megawatts of solar that will result—the largest solar-on-schools project in northern Virginia—illustrates how such decisions could ultimately yield up to 30 gigawatts of solar on U.S. public schools. (That would be the result if all 98,000 public schools installed 0.3 megawatts of rooftop solar—the average system size in 2017.)  

Arlington managed its own procurement, learning from the previous experience of neighboring jurisdictions, and hiring individual consultants as needed. Another path is illustrated by Washington, DC—across the Potomac River from Arlington—which contracted with a solar development firm to help manage an 11.8 megawatt solar procurement.

Arlington’s school district made a number of smart moves, in the view of this advocate and participant, in getting across the finish line. Here are the steps they took.

Find a team to drive the process

In Arlington’s case, the superintendent of schools had expressed interest in getting solar on all schools. That support paved the way for the school system’s energy manager to work with procurement and finance staff to explore a solar PPA, once the cost of solar became attractive. School board members were kept informed of the process.  

If instead school board members drive the process while staff are reluctant, it could be helpful to hire a solar development firm to help move things along.

Inform school board members that solar is no longer expensive

Many people outside the solar industry assume that solar is still expensive. Solar advocates focused on the newly attractive cost of solar in discussions with school board members. A former elected official played an important role here, as he was trusted by school board members. 

Eliminate legal uncertainties

Legal counsel for the school system determined that an amendment was needed to the purchasing resolution to create the authority to enter into a power purchase agreement.

School board members were reassured to see a provision in the amended resolution that, once a request for proposals was issued and bids were received, they would have the final say on whether a contract would be signed. With that guarantee, all five school board members voted yes on the amended resolution.  

Staff then had the go-ahead to issue a request for proposals (RFP).  

Get a unanimous school board vote at the “let’s get started” stage

No firm wants to do the time-consuming work of preparing a bid, only to hear that the prospective buyer decided not to buy after all. The Arlington School Board’s unanimous vote on the purchasing resolution helped give confidence to solar installation firms that one winning firm would indeed be awarded a contract.

Prepare an RFP that protects taxpayers 

Arlington’s RFP attracted price competition among bidders by setting a healthy project size of five schools, and providing qualified bidders with structural, electrical, and roofing information for each school. This meant that bidders would not need to expend resources obtaining this information.  

Each firm that submitted a bid was required to demonstrate relevant experience, state its project financing plan, provide audited financial statements, and commit to operate and maintain the solar installations. The RFP required racking made of non-ferrous metal, and favored a ballasted racking system. It included several other roof-related provisions, and required an option, after the 25-year contract expired, to buy the systems at the market price. 

Unlike some PPAs that begin with a modest initial price per kilowatt-hour that escalates over time, Arlington’s RFP called for a fixed price for electricity over the contract term. A fixed price, explained Arlington Public Schools (APS) Energy Manager Cathy Lin, gives the school system stability in managing its energy budget over the term of the contract.

To help prepare the RFP, school system staff called on engineering, structural, electrical, and legal consultants. Ms. Lin noted that APS staff also found two RFPs previously issued in neighboring Maryland to be helpful—one issued by Montgomery County, and another by the state’s Department of Transportation. She added that a solar PPA template prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory also came in handy (Commercial PPA Version 1.1). 

Go through a routine procurement process

Arlington held a bidder’s meeting, provided an opportunity for site inspections at the selected schools, answered questions from prospective bidders, and revised the RFP as needed. Six bids were received, of which four met all bid requirements.  

Once the bids were in, APS staff again brought in consultants with engineering, structural, electrical, and legal expertise. Three bidders were invited to make presentations: Ameresco, Sun Tribe Solar, and WGL Energy Systems. Staff recommended to the school board a draft contract from Sun Tribe Solar of Charlottesville, Virginia, based on the firm’s reputation with similar installations, as well as its site designs, operations plan, and engineering and financing approach.

Cross the finish line

School board members were advised that the solar PPA’s fixed price of 7.96 cents per kWh, for net metered electricity, would save the school district an estimated $4 million over the 25-year contract term, based on a projected 2.5% annual price increase for utility-provided electricity.  

Arlington school board members voted unanimously to sign the contract. That unanimous vote will be helpful in persuading firms to bid for the next round of solar on more APS schools.

Pay it forward

APS has posted its purchasing resolution,RFPcontract, and related documents online for all to see, following its routine procurement practice.  

Other school districts—as well as owners of commercial and industrial buildings—may now review these documents, just as APS reviewed the documents of those with earlier experience.

Ideally, coordinate with other school districts in adding solar

Because some utilities have sought to increase fixed charges on customers who have adopted rooftop solar, it makes sense for school districts in the same state or utility service area to aim to go solar together, for increased political influence. Notably, an elected official who represents much of Arlington in the Virginia legislature attended the signing ceremony for the APS solar contract. 

Originally published in PV Magazine USA

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