Virginia’s “Friendly City” is poised to become its Solar City, as Eastern Mennonite University has begun building the state’s largest solar power installation on its campus in Harrisonburg.

Work on a 104-kilowatt solar array on the university library’s roof began in late September, after the university signed a power purchase agreement with Secure Futures LLC, a Staunton, Va.-based solar development company that will own and operate the panels.

“This is a milestone for renewable energy in Virginia,” said Tony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures and co-director of EMU’s MBA Program.

While a second, larger installation has been planned elsewhere on campus, the 104-kw array on the library’s roof will already be Virginia’s largest solar power project (a distinction currently held by the 84 kW system on the roof of the Merrifield Post Office). Smith called EMU’s solar project – relatively modest in size compared to other installations across the country – a major accomplishment that demonstrates the viability of commercial solar power generation in a state with inexpensive electricity rates and few incentives to spur solar development.

The second phase of build-out, which may begin this spring, includes the installation solar panels on canopies above a parking lot that will generate an additional 300 kW of electricity. Once complete, the more than 400 kW of generating capacity will offset an estimated 9 percent of the university’s electricity needs and save $1.6 million over a 20-year period, according to Smith and others.

At a ceremony announcing the purchase agreement with Secure Futures, EMU President Loren Swartzendruber said that his colleagues at several other universities across the state have expressed interest in building similar projects of their own.

Though Smith declined to reveal the project’s total cost, he said it was on the expensive side of average for solar installations, which often range from $6 to $8 per watt of generating capacity. In addition to some up-front money provided by the university, the project received a $225,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, plus additional financing from Community Bank in Staunton, Va.

The panels are being installed by Southern Energy Management, a company based in Morrisville, N.C.

Eastern Mennonite University, a liberal arts school affiliated with the Mennonite Church, has a total enrollment of around 1,600 students. The college has previously received national recognition from the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers for leadership in energy efficiency and Recylemania for its recycling efforts.

Smith added that the panels appearing on campus will do more than whittle away at the university’s utility bills – they’ll also serve as a visible demonstration of the school’s commitment to sustainability and an inspiration to others across the state.

“It’s not just about throwing solar panels on the roof,” he said. “It’s about how renewable energy can renew a university … and renew the community it’s a part of.”