Fairfax County gets solar power plans back on track after contract hiccups

The Sully Community Center, which is slated to get rooftop solar panels this spring (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

More than three years into a groundbreaking agreement, this spring should bring solar power to one of Fairfax County’s facilities for the first time ever.

The county had 30 sites lined up for solar panels under a power purchase agreement (PPA) initiative that was touted the biggest ever undertaken by a Virginia locality when it was announced in December 2019.

Then, lease negotiations with the company contracted to install and operate the panels stalled, forcing the county to start from scratch with a different provider in July 2021.

“With the pandemic, there were supply chain issues within the solar industry and the cost of some construction materials went up,” said John Morrill, the county Office of Environment and Energy Coordination’s (OEEC) division manager for innovation and sustainability. “The county negotiated and accepted revised pricing from the vendors. But it’s still challenging, and the size of the system is still important to make the numbers work for both parties.”

Though the PPA initiative remains in place, the county is also pursuing other options to outfit its properties for solar power — specifically, incorporating it into new construction projects or enlisting energy services companies to do energy efficiency upgrades.

The solar project expected to be completed first will come from the general contractor hired to build the Sully Community Center, which opened in the Dulles area on Sept. 17.

The contractor is currently getting permits for the solar photovoltaic panels, putting the installation on track for completion by May, according to the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

The general contractor route will also ensure that the new Seven Corners Fire Station has solar panels when it opens in spring 2024. The existing station on Sleepy Hollow Road was demolished last month.

Projects are also in various stages of development for the Woodlawn and Reston fire stations, the Spring Hill Recreation Center in McLean, and the Pender building, which hosts the county’s Housing and Community Development offices.

For those sites, the county will buy solar panels from energy services companies hired to install them along with other efficiency upgrades. The fire stations are in the final design phase with delivery target dates in August, while the Spring Hill project is in engineering design and slated for completion in winter 2024.

The county is targeting October for the Pender building upgrades, which are “a bit more complex,” Morrill says. In addition to a rooftop solar array, the project will retrofit the facility’s lighting and replace some other infrastructure, according to a permit under review.

“This combination of approaches gives the county maximum flexibility, as smaller systems…are not suitable to the PPA model,” Morrill said.

In the PPA model, the county contracts a solar provider to install, operate and maintain solar panels. The county isn’t responsible for any of those upfront costs, but it has to pay the provider and utility for the electricity that the panels produce.

According to Morrill, those agreements are most appealing to vendors for large projects, such as the one planned for the I-95 Landfill Complex in Lorton. That array will occupy 40 acres of land and is expected to generate 5 megawatts of electricity.

In comparison, the Sully Community Center project will generate 180 kilowatts, and Morrill estimates that panels approved for Annandale High School — Fairfax County Public Schools’ first PPA project — will generate about 600 kilowatts.

The landfill project is in the design stage, with construction likely starting in 2024 and finishing in 2025, per the OEEC.

Morrill says the county is planning solar panels at “several other facilities” through either the PPA initiative or energy efficiency upgrades, but it’s too early to estimate any timelines.

Even with these projects in the works, Fairfax County has some catching up to do in the race to transition to clean and renewable energy. While its greenhouse emissions from energy use have decreased since 2019, the county government still has some ways to go to meet its goal of carbon neutrality by 2040.

Meanwhile, neighboring Arlington County announced last week that its operations now run entirely on renewable energy sources.

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