By the end of March, the roof of the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness will be home to the first commercially installed set of solar panels under a Virginia power purchase agreement.

Legislation passed in 2013 allowed third-party vendors to provide renewable energy to qualified customers as part of the Virginia State Corporation Commission’s Renewable Energy Pilot Program. The university has partnered with Secure Futures, one such vendor, to install 749 solar panels that cover 22,000 square feet of roof.

The project is innovative in multiple ways. According to Rob Andrejewski, director of sustainability, the project is “the first commercial installation of a solar array in Dominion [Power] territory in the Commonwealth [of Virginia].”

There are two types of solar panels being installed. The array includes both monofacial panels, which have a white backing, and bifacial panels, which have glass on both sides. Reflected sunlight from the roof can be captured by a bifacial panel. A monofacial panel can only collect direct sunlight. Solar World, a co-owner of the project with Secure Futures, manufactures the panels. The project is the first commercial installation of Solar World’s “Bisun” bifacial panels in the Americas.

The Weinstein Center's roof is made of two materials. One part of the roof is gravel, and the other part is a white rubber material. In addition to testing and comparing the performance of the bifacial and monofacial panels, the university can compare the performance of each type of panel on the different roofs.

The solar array project is intriguing to the university because of its educational component, David Hale, vice president for business and finance, said. Andrejewski expects student and faculty research to play a large role in determining the highest efficiency panel and roof type.

“It’s pretty much set up to be a living lab study,” Andrejewski said.

Once installed, the panels are expected to produce 237,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, or about the amount of energy that is needed to power one of the residence halls on campus for a year.

Secure Futures approached the university about a project together after the power purchase agreement (PPA) legislation was passed and project discussions began in the fall of 2014, Hale said. The PPA has been essential for bringing solar power to campus. In the past, the university would have had to buy and install the solar array upfront and wait for a return on the investment over the following years.

“This allows somebody else to make that upfront investment,” Andrejewski said. "And we buy the electricity from them just like we would from our utility company.”

The university will purchase electricity produced by the array from Secure Futures at a fixed rate for the next 20 years. Currently, that price is higher than the rate set by Dominion Power, the university’s main electricity provider. However, expected market fluctuations and increases in electricity cost over the next few years offset the university’s initial investment, Andrejewski said.

Despite the higher price, Andrejewski is confident the agreement is a positive change. “We want to see more solar and we want to take the leadership to say, ‘We’re willing to pay a little bit more to make this work.’”

The installation of the solar panels by Shockhoe Solar, a sub-contractor retained by Secure Futures, began on March 7 and is proceeding smoothly. Workers are laying a metal racking system that is weighted down on the roof before the panels are snapped into place. Completion is expected by the end of March and the installation is ahead of schedule, said Andrew Harrison, Shockoe Solar’s project foreman.

In 2007, president emeritus Edward Ayers committed the University of Richmond to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020 and achieving climate neutrality, eliminating emissions, by 2050. Andrejewski said 17 percent of that goal had been achieved. The new solar array is expected to raise the figure by one percentage point.

Although installation continues on the current solar array, future renewable energy plans are not far from Andrejewski’s mind.

“There’s a whole slate of potential projects,” Andrejewski said. “The possibilities are endless.”

Contact news writer Ashlee Korlach at ashlee.korlach@richmond.edu

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