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New Solar Panel Installation Advances Campus Sustainability and Offers Teaching Opportunities

Norfolk Academy has taken a strong step forward in campus sustainability with the installation of an extensive array of solar panels, an initiative led by several parents at the school. It is one of the largest rooftop solar arrays in Virginia and the largest on any Hampton Roads school.
The panels are not visible from the ground, but they can be seen from various vantage points on the school’s second story. The Lower School has the bulk of the installation, with nearly 1,300 panels; an additional 500 panels were installed on the roof of the Middle School as well as 150 panels on the maintenance building. The installation offers enough capacity to fully power the new James B. Massey Jr. Leadership Center, making it a net zero building, which means the amount of energy used by the building is roughly equivalent to the amount of renewable energy generated. The installation also helps put the Massey Center on the path to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification.
The $1 million solar project will reduce the school’s carbon footprint substantially. It was spearheaded by Norfolk Academy parent Ruth McElroy, a NASA engineer and an active environmentalist. She was joined in the initiative by environmentally-conscious Norfolk Academy parents in forming Sun Dogs LLC, a limited liability company that brought the project to fruition.
The parents’ LLC purchased the solar panels and took advantage of federal tax credits that are available for installation of solar energy systems. The electricity generated by the panels is tied into the grid, so Dominion Virginia Power will credit NA for any excess production that can be used by other customers. Over the next seven years, Norfolk Academy will pay Sun Dogs instead of Dominion for the power generated by the panels. At the end of seven years, Sun Dogs will turn ownership of the panels over to Norfolk Academy, and the school will then continue to reap benefits far into the future, saving over $80,000 annually in energy costs.
The panels, which weigh 55 pounds each, have a 40-year life expectancy and produce energy even if covered with an inch of snow, said Ryan Healy of Convert Solar, the Virginia Beach-based company that ordered the panels and did the installation. Each panel is attached to the roof with brackets. If one panel fails, it can be easily removed and replaced without impacting the panels surrounding it. While some solar installations secure the panels with a ballast, Norfolk Academy chose the added security of brackets; the installation should remain affixed and undamaged in winds up to 150 mph.
While the practical benefits are irrefutable, they should not overshadow the more significant impact of this investment in terms of the school’s leadership in the region and its educational mission. Other institutions will hopefully follow the school’s example and make similar installations. "Sustainability is a long-term commitment for our school, and there is no plan for this to be a 'pilot' or short-term experiment," said Headmaster Dennis Manning.
Three touch-panel kiosks, will soon be installed at high activity spots on campus, allow students to see in real-time the amount of energy that is being generated and utilized on campus. "We are using [this project] as an educational asset for our students as they learn about solar energy, as well as our own energy consumption patterns on campus," Mr. Manning said.

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