WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University now has a total of 1,337 solar panels between three buildings on its main campus, making it the largest rooftop solar power system of any college or university in Virginia.
The installation was made possible through a partnership with Secure Futures Solar, based in Staunton. The three buildings with solar panels include the Alson H. Smith, Jr. Library with 126 panels at 2,580 square feet, the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre with 229 panels at 4,689 square feet and the James R. Wilkins, Jr. Athletics & Events Center with 982 panels at 20,106 square feet.
The solar panels will save the university more than $3 million over the next 35 years in electricity costs. Net savings to the university on electricity (after all costs are taken out) are projected to total more than $1.5 million over the next 35 years.
“That’s important to me because that’s tuition dollars that we don’t have to raise tuition for,” said SU President Tracy Fitzsimmons at a press conference Friday. “We could use those saved funds to invest in our students, to make tuition lower, to invest in our faculty.”
SU’s solar panels have the capacity to produce about 500 kilowatts of electricity with an annual output of electricity around 675,000 kilowatt hours. Each year the energy generated from the solar panels will be equivalent to the amount of carbon in 258 tons of coal burned, the electricity use of 82 homes and the consumption of more than 53,000 gallons of gasoline.
The cost of solar panels has decreased by 70% in the past 10 years, said Erik Curren, chief marketing officer of Secure Futures Solar.
Secure Futures Solar is managing more than 25 solar projects across the state. The solar company paid for the panels and their installation while SU pays Secure Futures Solar for a lower cost in energy services. The university has the option to buy the solar panels from the company in the future should SU want to continue using the panels. The panels typically have a lifespan of 35 to 40 years.
Fitzsimmons also said that if the university does not act to protect the environment then it can’t expect students to “do the right thing” for future generations.
“We believe in environmental sustainability,” Fitzsimmons said. “We believe that this project is not just good for the planet, but that it’s a good role model for our current students and students to come.”
Climate change represents one of the most important challenges of the 21st century, said David Baxa, a member of SU’s board of trustees.
“I understand that our future is at risk due to climate change and associated threats to our planet and how these changes are being fostered by human activity on a global scale,” Baxa said.
The new solar panels also provide an opportunity to inspire conversations on campus and in the greater Winchester community, he said.
“The dialogue is changing and our focus is on practical solutions as we become better stewards of our planet,” Baxa said.
Vijay Ramnarain, director of support services for the Virginia Department of Education, said on Friday at the press conference that the state is looking at new ways to improve school buildings and adding roof solar panels is one of them. Having renewable energies to power schools is also a great learning tool for students, he added.