Currently, solar energy is closer than ever to coming to many schools in Albemarle County.

That's thanks to an agreement between the school system and a Staunton based company.

Thursday, the school system entered into a solar power purchase agreement with an energy supplier other than Dominion Virginia Power.

The agreement is possible thanks to Sutherland Middle School students pushing for a cleaner future.

These students know exactly where solar panels should go on their school to be most efficient.

"If we use more solar instead of coal then we might have a better chance of creating less pollution," says Caitlyn Sanford, 7th grade student.

The group researched ways to conserve energy and bring a greener source of power to more Albemarle County Schools.

"The states around Virginia had solar power but Virginia had not jumped on it yet. So it seemed like Virginia was kind of like a dark state while the other states were a little bit lighter," says Sanford.

Now, the county is partnering with Staunton based Secure Futures to put panels on several middle, high, and elementary schools.

"This is clean renewable energy, it's built into the curriculum and we will be offering workshops on this for the students," says Tony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures.

The solar power purchase agreement allows the school system to purchase electricity generated by the solar panels from the third-party provider.

"It's going to save the schools money," says Smith.

Albemarle Co. Schools report that they anticipate saving at least $80,000 with this new 20 year deal.

"Schools can build on the example of Albemarle County Public schools and develop solar for their schools, lower their costs, provide clean energy, reduce their dependence on the grid and build it into their curriculum," says Smith.

The school system says solar panels will go up at Albemarle and Monticello High Schools, Sutherland Middle School, and three elementary schools by the end of the calendar year as a part of this power purchase agreement.

News release from Albemarle County Public Schools:

(ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Virginia) – Albemarle County Public Schools has become the first school division in Virginia to enter into a solar Power Purchase Agreement with a third-party provider following the signing of a contract with Secure Futures, a Staunton-based solar energy development firm. The project will result in the generation of 1.3 million kilowatt hours per year from the installation of more than 3,000 solar panels on the roofs of six schools.

This week's formal agreement was foreshadowed by the testimony of a dozen Sutherland students before a State Corporation Commission hearing in 2014. The hearing was on Dominion Virginia Power's Integrated Resource Plan, which is a 15-year analysis of the utility's future generation portfolio.

As part of a class assignment, the sixth graders researched and developed presentations on the merits of a wide variety of alternative energy sources, including solar power. With some gentle prodding from their mathematics teacher, Rachel Benham, the students transformed their work into crisp and powerful statements of support for increasing alternative energy sources in Virginia.

“We all are very proud of the work and determination of our students,” Ms. Benham said. “Not only was their academic research and analysis exceptional in its depth, but they learned a valuable lesson about citizen participation in decisions by government.”

When the students arrived for the hearing, Ms. Benham requested they be the final speakers to allow other, more experienced speakers to be heard first. She was later told by state officials, however, that the students were so well-prepared and persuasive they should have been the first to speak.

In addition to the Sutherland students, a former Albemarle High School student, Amory Fisher, now studying environmental policy and planning at Virginia Tech, led a student group last year in support of solar panel installations on schools. That effort, tabbed Solar Schools Initiative, organized a petition drive that collected nearly 1,000 signatures.

Under the terms of the contract with Secure Futures, solar photovoltaic arrays will be installed at Albemarle and Monticello high schools, Sutherland Middle School, and at three elementary schools, Baker-Butler, Brownsville and Greer. Work will begin later this year and is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year.

As called for in the 20-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), the school division will purchase electricity generated by the solar arrays, which will equal approximately 14 percent of current electricity needs at the six schools. The arrays and their installation will be paid for by Secure Futures, and the school division estimates that the division will save a minimum of $80,000 over the life of the agreement, based on a projected annual increase of two percent in Dominion Virginia Power's rates.

“Power Purchase Agreements are valuable tools for public and non-profit institutions to utilize zero-emitting solar power to supplement their energy use with little to no upfront capital costs,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. “Embracing tools such as these will help grow the solar and renewable industries in our state and help to build a new Virginia economy. I applaud the leadership of Albemarle County Public Schools and their students and congratulate them on this exciting announcement,” the Governor added.

Permitted by the state legislature in 2013, Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) allow schools and other non-profit organizations to benefit from tax incentives provided to third-party suppliers, such as Secure Futures. The purpose is to make growth of the solar power industry feasible in Virginia.

“Public school divisions are ideal candidates for this kind of initiative, and we congratulate Albemarle County Public Schools for leading the way forward,” said Dr. Tony Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer of Secure Futures. “While the division will significantly shrink its environmental footprint in the community and reduce its energy budget, just as important will be the opportunity students will have to learn about renewable energy in a highly practical way,” he said.

That is a point emphasized by Lindsay Snoddy, the school division's Environmental Program Manager. “We are excited that part of our agreement includes student workshops on alternative energy,” she said. She also noted that solar arrays will not be a new concept to the division. Since 2012, the school division has operated a solar photovoltaic 42-kilowatt system at Henley Middle School. The program was funded by a grant through the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Based in large part on the Henley project and the ENERGY STAR certification earned by 23 of the division's 25 school buildings, Albemarle County Public Schools received the Virginia School Board Association's highest environmental award in 2013.

Founded in 2004, Secure Futures is a first mover and market leader in the Virginia solar energy industry. The company received a Solar Innovation of the Year award from the Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association in November 2014. It has designed and installed solar arrays for several universities in Virginia, including Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg and Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

In January 2015, Secure Futures and the University of Richmond announced a deal to install a 204-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array on the roof of the university's wellness center. Scheduled for completion this summer, this was the first project in the state authorized under the PPA pilot program.