PCPS nearing completion of solar projects

Workers complete the installation of solar panels at Powhatan Middle School as part of a solar power partnership with Sun Tribe Solar LLC.

POWHATAN – Powhatan County Public School is expecting to take another big step in its efforts to decrease its carbon footprint with the completion of its major solar project within the next few weeks.

Since late fall 2019, contractors have been installing roof-mounted solar arrays on four of the county’s five public schools as part of a solar power partnership with Sun Tribe Solar LLC. The Powhatan County School Board voted unanimously to approve the partnership with Sun Tribe in June 2019.

Crews have reached both mechanical completion and substantial completion on the jobs at all three elementary schools and Powhatan Middle School and have been given permission to operate (PTO) from Dominion Power, said Tom Paquette, project manager for Sun Tribe Solar. They are currently in varying stages of completing their last punch lists and commissioning the systems, which means prepping them to be turned on and tested.

Pocahontas Elementary and Powhatan Middle schools are the furthest along in progress, with an expected total completion date of mid February. Powhatan and Flat Rock Elementary schools are not far behind and are expected to be online by early March, he added.

According to current data, the projects at the different schools are expected to produce a wide array of power to offset the schools’ needs: Powhatan Elementary, 1,126 solar panels, 52 percent anticipated offset; Pocahontas Elementary, 1,002 solar panels, 49.3 percent; Flat Rock Elementary, 628 solar panels, 34.7 percent, and Powhatan Middle, 1,278 solar panels, 61.5 percent. This is over a 12-month period.

Last summer, Sun Tribe provided figures to the school board that showed a higher offset of electricity costs, but in the pre-construction phase’s structural analysis, the company realized it couldn’t add as many solar panels as first projected, Paquette said.

Three of the buildings have flat roofs, so the solar panels will not be visible to the public in most places where they are installed, said Dr. Jason Tibbs, director of facilities. The exceptions will be some panels visible from the second floors of Flat Rock and the middle school. Because of the slanted roofs at Powhatan Elementary School, some of the panels installed there are also visible.

The process of installing the solar panels has been “seamless” and the working relationship between the school division and Sun Tribe has been excellent, Tibbs said. The solar company took the lead on the project, which was a relief to division staff members who have handled some big building and renovation projects in the last few years.

“There really have not been any challenges at all. Sun Tribe has done an exceptional job. One of the things we wanted to make sure they understood is that if they were working during the school day, that none of their work would impede upon the instructional delivery in the classroom,” Tibbs said. “Other than a piece of equipment going by a window or hearing footsteps on the roof, there really has been minimal impact on the school day.”

Tibbs commended the company’s willingness to work with the county to handle all of the required paperwork and permits and the way crews always treated the safety of students and staff as paramount. He especially pointed out Paquette’s dedication to the project.

Paquette said his family moved to Powhatan when he was in fifth grade and he grew up in the public school system here, so it has been an especially important project for him to watch come to fruition.

“This project has been a cool thing for me because I grew up in Powhatan, my family lives there, and I went to the old Powhatan High School, which is now the middle school that I put solar on. So to be involved with a project like this was really special to me,” he said.

He added that there is a personal sense of pride for him in this project knowing Powhatan is embracing clean energy.

“Powhatan County is one of the first schools in the state to have an initiative to get countywide clean power. That is something that everybody that lives there deserves to be proud of,” he said.

Devin Welch, CEO of Sun Tribe Solar, said Paquette “is a world-class project manager, and the fact that he had the chance to work to bring solar to his hometown shows just how committed Powhatan County Public Schools are to educating leaders.”

As a Virginia-based, community-focused clean energy company, Welch said he is proud that Paquette and another former PCPS student were part of the team that made these projects possible. PHS graduate Amelia Thomas served as a research analyst, and then as a research and marketing associate for Sun Tribe as she completed her studies at UVA, where she graduated in 2019.

Installing solar arrays on the schools has been an exciting project and one that has been discussed by the school division since spring 2017, Tibbs said. The idea didn’t take off then but was revived in early 2019. At the time, the division was already collaborating with Trane Building Advantage to do upgrades to the lighting, building envelopes and mechanical systems in the school district.

“I think what it does is shows we are very cognizant of what is available to us and what our options are. The Trane project was a great project to come in and retrofit many of our older light fixtures, our older valves for water conservation, and much of our older mechanical equipment,” Tibbs said. “As equipment gets older, it takes more for it to run – not just from an electricity standpoint but also from a repair and a maintenance standpoint. So this has provided us with an opportunity to take some of our older equipment and replace it with newer equipment that is more energy efficient and is also going to provide us with resources so we can put those resources where they are needed.”

The project has also given the school district an opportunity “to really hone in on our processes and on what we have internally within the building from the standpoint of we can take a deeper look at our preventive maintenance schedules,” he added.

The school division is also excited about the educational opportunities the solar arrays will provide for the school district, Tibbs said. They have already held some teacher tours, but after the systems are finished and working, there will be more professional development centered around solar power.

“Maybe not this spring but at some point between this spring and next fall, we will do some training so they can hit the ground running with it. Everything will be up and running and they can plan lessons and integrate it into their classrooms,” Tibbs said.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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