HEC

The City of Harrisonburg hopes to have half of its energy derive from renewable energy by 2025.

On Aug.25, Harrisonburg City Council approved the Harrisonburg Electric Commission to move forward with plans for a community solar program. With this approval, the HEC can purchase 9.9 acres of land located at the northeast corner of Acorn Drive and N Liberty Street to be developed for solar power energy usage. The HEC will use this avenue to put renewable energy on the grid and progress toward a greener city.

Brian O’Dell, the general manager of the HEC, said that the push for solar panels began years ago in response to the Harrisonburg community seeking more renewable energy options.

“We have felt for a long time that the community had been looking for us to do something along these lines,” O’Dell said. 

Daphyne Thomas, chairperson for the HEC, also said that the HEC turning to more renewable energy options is something the community has been looking forward to for a long time. This project has been in the works for the past three years, and she said it took many people involved to bring this together. 

“We feel confident that we’re making a step forward in terms of being responsive to the needs of the environment, and being responsive to what the community has indicated is a priority,” Thomas said. 

O’Dell said the program would be entirely voluntary and there would be a limited number of subscribers, as the solar space is limited. The plant’s power supply will be enough to power 250 homes annually. Customers would be able to opt in for a premium.

Thomas said she thinks the community will react well to this decision and that people would be willing to use the sustainable energy option. 

“We feel confident that there are many like-minded people in the community who see reduction of carbon emissions as a priority and would be willing to participate in this,” Thomas said.

While the HEC predicts that many homeowners in Harrisonburg will use this option, Thomas said she foresees some businesses taking advantage of this opportunity to use sustainable energy, as well. 

Jo Anna St. Clair, chair of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV), said she was happy about the City Council decision but hopes to see more actions in the future. 

“It is a great step forward,” St. Clair said, “We just think there is more that could’ve been done and more questions that could’ve been raised. We want the city to move closer to its recently adopted Environmental Action Plan and closer to the goals of ‘50 by 25.’”

50 by 25” is a term used for Harrisonburg’s goal of using 50% renewable energy by 2025. It’s used commonly among many environmental organizations and green energy activists. St. Clair said that while it’s a high goal, it’s better to aim high when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and increasing options for greener energy. 

CAAV is trying to push the city to be more specific with its Environmental Action Plan and set specific guidelines for a more sustainable community.

St. Clair said that she’s concerned that a third party owning the solar panels could possibly bump up energy costs, even for those not using solar energy. She also said the premium cost of solar energy would prevent low-income residents and small businesses from getting involved in the program. 

“We just think the City Council needs to consider how this plan benefits everyone, especially the lower-income residents and small businesses,” St. Clair said. 

With the ongoing housing crisis the city is facing, St. Clair said it could’ve been beneficial to use the land to build more moderate housing, and the HEC could’ve added the solar panels onto the housing. She said that overall, she wished the city had more conversations about this decision in public to get the community’s perspective, and she’s curious to see how the HEC decision aligns with the Environmental Action Plan.

O’Dell said he doesn’t expect the solar panels to be built until mid-to-late 2021. He also said that the HEC has plans to pursue even more renewable energy in the future. 

“There are many opportunities for the HEC to partner with the city and move forward in this mission,” Thomas said, “We all have a responsibility to the needs of climate change and what’s happening. I think we will see various other agencies move forward from this.”

St. Clair said she’s hopeful for the future of sustainable energy in Harrisonburg and plans to still use her voice to leave a positive mark on the city.

“I can’t give you all of the science,” St. Clair said, “but I do know the broader events of what’s going on [with the climate] and I do know that regular people have to speak up, so that’s what I’m doing.” 

Contact Eleanor Weber at weberea@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.