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Annandale High School (via Google Maps)

For the first time, the Fairfax County School Board has approved a contract to install rooftop solar panels on a school building, a move both board members and advocates said has been a long time coming.

Under a solar power purchase agreement (PPA) that the board authorized Thursday (Nov. 3), Annandale High School will receive solar panels as a pilot program to give Fairfax County Public Schools “a working knowledge of these installations,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said before the vote.

While FCPS has 10 schools with solar panels, those serve more as educational tools than power sources. Coupled with the recent addition of electric school buses, the Annandale project represents a notable step in the school system’s efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and adopt renewable energy.

“Moving this pilot forward and committing to its expansion across the entire school division is an essential part of meeting the board’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2040,” Providence District Representative Karl Frisch said. “…To address the climate crisis, every level of government must act. Tonight’s vote is further proof that our board is committed to doing that.”

After conducting a physical inspection of Annandale High, vendor Ipsun Solar will begin the panel installation sometime in late 2023 or early 2024, an FCPS spokesperson told FFXnow. A follow-up inquiry about that timeline didn’t get a response by press time.

FCPS is also working to advance projects at Chantilly High School, Thoreau Middle School, Hayfield and Robinson secondary schools, and Terreset and Mason Crest elementary schools before the end of this year, according to Frisch and Anderson.

“Schools were selected by the vendors based on a number of categories that contribute to the campus’ overall solar viability. These categories included the roof type, the roof age and solar generation capacity,” Anderson said, noting that Annandale High was proposed as the pilot site “because of its high solar generation potential.”

The approval comes more than a year after the school board agreed to advance a solar program in May 2021 and almost three years after Fairfax County launched its solar PPA initiative in December 2019.

Touting the initiative as the largest undertaken by a locality in Virginia, the county awarded contracts to three different vendors to bring rooftop- and canopy-mounted solar panels to an initial slate of 113 sites, including 87 school buildings.

In a power purchase agreement, the solar provider owns the panels and is responsible for the installation, operation, and maintenance costs. The buyer — in this case, FCPS — carries no upfront costs but must still pay the provider and Dominion Energy or another utility for the electricity.

For Annandale High, Ipsun will charge $0.102 per kilowatt hour for the electricity generated over a 25-year period, with the rate increasing 2% annually after five years of operations. FCPS estimates that the payments will total about $2.2 million, saving it between $11,000 and $22,000 in energy costs per year, on average.

“They’re going to save a lot of money on this one school over the life of the contract. Now, multiply that over, you know, the next hundred schools, and we’re saving a lot of taxpayer dollars,” said Susan Stillman, an at-large executive committee member for Sierra Club Virginia.

Multiple school board members praised Stillman and Solar on Our Schools — a student advocacy group formed by James Madison High School students with Stillman’s support in 2015 — for pushing FCPS to pursue solar energy projects.

The school system’s first solar PPA contract took longer to arrive than hoped, largely due to conflicts that led the county to terminate its contract with original rooftop vendor Sigora Solar, but Stillman says she’s now “just excited that they’re going to get started.”

She and fellow environmental advocate Scott Peterson, the co-founder and vice chair of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions, both credited Superintendent Michelle Reid and acting Assistant Superintendent for Transportation and Facilities Chuck Fanshaw for breaking “the logjam” to make the agreement happen.

“This shows the public and students, who are going to have to live in a climate-changed world, that FCPS cares about the young people that they’re educating,” Stillman said.

Photo via Google Maps

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Vienna is slowly losing its tree covering, according to a new report (staff photo by Vernon Miles).

Over the last ten years, Vienna has been steadily losing its tree canopy.

In an assessment report submitted to the Vienna Town Council earlier this month, staff found that the city’s tree canopy cover has been reduced by approximately 163 acres — or 13% — since 2011.

The decline in the town’s tree canopy is in contrast with earlier increases in prior decades.

Vienna currently has around 38.7% canopy coverage, which is lower than Fairfax County as a whole (51.2%) and nearby Falls Church (46%), but slightly ahead of some nearby areas like Arlington (38%) and Alexandria (32.5%).

The highest losses were concentrated around the center of town, near the now-ironically named Maple Avenue.

The report also includes suggestions on how Vienna can reverse the decline, including using more of the town’s right of way to plant trees along roads.

“Although overall canopy percentages of Vienna have decreased in the past 10 years, there exists many opportunities to plant, preserve, and maintain the trees within the town,” the report said. “The next steps will determine the course for The Town of Vienna’s tree management program.”

The report includes several considerations for boosting the town’s tree canopy:

  • Establishing a percentage for the Town’s tree canopy goal.
  • Providing support for tree planting and preservation programs and activities.
  • Engaging and educating the residents and stakeholders in Vienna to support and participate in tree-related
    activities.
  • Developing a program to encourage planting of trees on private property.
  • Writing an Urban Forest Master Plan (UFMP) for Vienna.
  • Conducting an inventory of the Town’s public trees (street ROW, parks, and other public property).
  • Continuing to compile and maintain data on the annual expenditures on tree planting and number of trees planted to maintain Vienna’s “Tree City USA” status.

Town Council member Nisha Patel said she hopes the report will be a wakeup call for the town.

“The message has been loud and clear for all of us: that we need to plant more trees,” Patel said. “Thank you for giving us the hard evidence of that.”

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Electric vehicle chargers in Oakton (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) Fairfax County is looking to charge up a new electric vehicle charging station program and pilot it in Reston.

At last week’s Transportation Committee meeting, the Board of Supervisors discussed a new “Charge Up Fairfax” program, where the county would provide support to homeowners’ associations (HOAs) and multi-family communities to install electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in common areas.

“Electric vehicles are coming and a large segment of the population won’t be able to participate simply because of the issue of at-home charging,” Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Director Kambiz Agazi said Friday (Sept. 30).

The county hopes that, by 2030, 15% of all light-duty vehicle registrations in the county will be EVs, per the Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) adopted last year. By 2050, the aim is to be at 42%. As of May 2022, though, under 1% of light-duty vehicle registrations are electric.

Under the proposed pilot program, the county would work with HOAs, large multi-family apartment buildings, and condo associations to install EV charging stations in publicly available locations, such as parking garages and designated parking spots owned by an HOA.

The county has proposed starting the pilot with Reston Association (RA), the largest HOA in the county and possibly the country(Correction: This article initially said Reston Association has been chosen for the pilot. RA says conversations are underway, but no final decision has been made.)

Agazi said the pilot program is funded, but a timeline wasn’t established at the meeting.

There are more than 1,500 home, apartment and condo associations in the county, according to Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn.

“We are kind of at the forefront on this one and there not a lot of communities in the region, or even around the country, that are trying to tackle this,” Alcorn said. “We are really talking about roughly half of our population that live in communities like I do that don’t have a [private] garage or a private space that they could put a charger. So, this is a big deal.”

“Charge Up Fairfax” would assist HOAs in identifying locations for charging stations, provide technical support to set them up, and offer financial assistance. The grants would be structured to reimburse communities for a third of eligible expenses up to $5,000.

So-called “disadvantaged” communities would be able to apply for two grants, meaning they would have eligible expenses reimbursed for up to $10,000.

A big component will be a feasibility study, which the county will conduct for the HOAs. The study will consider power sources, the parking situation, community input, and other factors to determine where the best locations would be for charging stations. Read More

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Solar Panels (via Flickr/Minoru Karamatsu)

After years of effort, solar panels are finally coming to the I-95 Landfill Complex in Lorton.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion on Sept. 13 to lease about 40 acres of the county-owned closed landfill within the complex to Sun Tribe Solar to install, operate, and maintain an array of ground-mounted solar panels.

Sun Tribe Solar, in turn, will let the county purchase renewable energy generated at the site with little upfront or operational costs, which staff say will help the county reduce its greenhouse emissions.

With the company quoting a rate of about 11 cents per kilowatt hour with no escalation over the life of the agreement, the county expects to save money immediately — about $51,000 in the first year of operation and over $1 million cumulatively by year eight.

Thought to be the first such project in the Commonwealth, the panels are expected to be installed and go online by the end of 2024, Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) Deputy Director Eric Forbes said at the meeting.

A map of where the solar panels will go at the I-95 Landfill Complex (via Fairfax County)

As a number of supervisors noted, though, it was a long time coming, with a number of challenges along the way.

Despite solid local support, the county needed approval from the Virginia General Assembly for solar panels to be installed on its land. The county was exploring the project at least as early as 2017, but every time it was taken to the state legislature, their request was denied.

The needed permission came at last from the 2020 Solar Freedom Act, which included a specific clause providing Fairfax County the go-ahead for the landfill project.

“I really wish this had happened a long time ago when I was chair of the environment committee because that’s when we first started having this discussion,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said. “[A closed landfill] is perfect for solar. If it had not been for that pesky Virginia General Assembly not allowing it unless there was a change in the legislation, we would have done this a long time ago and would have been way ahead of the game.”

Gross wasn’t the only one to express frustration at the state holding up a project that the county says will increase its use of renewable energy while also saving money. Read More

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A worker stands next to 13 feet of exposed stream bank along Bear Branch in Southside Park (via Town of Vienna)

The Vienna Town Council dedicated over half a million dollars on Monday (Aug. 29) to an ongoing project to restore Bear Branch tributary, a stream that runs through Southside Park to I-66.

With no discussion, the council awarded a $543,258 design contract to A. Morton Thomas and Associates, Inc. (AMT), one of five engineering firms that submitted proposals for this second phase of a two-part project this past spring.

This phase of the restoration will address approximately 2,300 linear feet of stream that flows through the park, parallel to Walker Street SW and Ross Drive SW, by stabilizing “the steep, eroded stream banks,” according to town staff.

“The completed project will reduce sedimentation and improve the stream’s water quality using natural channel design techniques,” the project page says.

In addition to shoring up the stream banks, the project will involve the replacement of a pedestrian bridge and the development of a “functional” pedestrian trail from the bridge to an existing sidewalk.

As part of its proposal, AMT said it would provide two recommendations for a possible bridge design and work with the town and park staff to develop the trail. The firm’s contract consists of a base fee of $497,744 with $45,514 added for the bridge and trail.

Carrying an estimated total cost of $2.5 million, the project is being funded by both Fairfax County and the town, which obtained a grant from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in November 2019.

The project’s first phase, which focused on the stream segment parallel to Patrick Street SW and Yeonas Park, got funding approved in 2019 and a design contract awarded in July 2020.

The first phase’s design plan is nearly complete and will be presented at a community meeting next Thursday (Sept. 8).

Photo via Town of Vienna

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Once McLean resident Lauren Taylor learned how to identify invasive plants in Fairfax County’s parks, she couldn’t stop noticing them.

They take a variety of forms, from shrubs like Japanese barberry — distinctive for the red coloring and spatula-like shape of its leaves — to creeping vines such as wintercreeper and English ivy that essentially strangle trees.

Inspired by a trip to help build a national park in Chile’s Patagonia region in 2014, Taylor is among the over 3,000 volunteers who help clear invasive plants each year from the Fairfax County Park Authority’s 24,000 acres of land at 65 different sites under its Invasive Management Area (IMA) program.

“I love to hike and camp, and I was oblivious that everything I was walking by was invasive,” Taylor told FFXnow on a walk through McLean Central Park. “It turns out that everything that’s green is not good, and it was breaking my heart to realize that all of this that you see is destroying our ecosystems and harming our wildlife.”

With an annual budget of $300,000 and just one full-time staffer, the IMA program’s daunting mission seems almost Sisyphean when individuals can walk into a Home Depot or their local nursery and buy the same plants that volunteers are trying to root out.

After spotting wintercreeper, Japanese barberry, and other invasive plants at the Home Depots in Hybla Valley and Merrifield, Taylor launched a Change.org petition earlier this summer urging the company to end sales of all species listed as invasive in the U.S.

The petition had accrued nearly 50,000 signatures, as of last night (Monday), garnering support from advocacy organizations like Blue Ridge PRISM, Plant NOVA Natives, and the Urban Forest Alliance, according to a news release.

While major chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s aren’t alone in selling these plants, Taylor says she wanted to “start at the top and get the 800-pound gorilla to agree to do the right thing,” noting that Home Depot has ceased sales of plants identified as invasive in California since 2015.

“At least 35 plants that Home Depot is selling have been identified as invasive in one or more parts of the United States,” Taylor said. “So, Home Depot, I’m sure they sell hundreds, if not potentially thousands of different [units] of plants. We’re only asking them to stop selling 35.”

Home Depot says it adheres to Department of Agriculture regulations for each state, including for online sales. Breeders have also developed some sterile versions of popular plants so they can be grown without spreading.

“We follow the Department of Agriculture’s guidelines and their definition of what’s invasive and where, and we comply with that,” Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith said. Read More

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Morning Notes

Looking up at Tysons Tower outside Tysons Corner Center (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Route 7 Traffic Shift Starts Today — “During the daytime hours on Aug. 11 and the overnight hours on Aug. 15, lane closures and temporary detours will be in place along Route 7 while crews continue paving operations at Carpers Farm Way and Colvin Run Road (east) and shift westbound Route 7 traffic to the new Difficult Run bridge.” [VDOT]

Pro-Nazi Social Media Posts Excluded from Reston Murder Trial — “A Virginia judge has ruled that prosecutors cannot tell the jury in an upcoming double-murder trial about the defendant’s social media posts containing praise for Adolf Hitler and support for Nazi book burnings and the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, according to newly unsealed court records.” [The Washington Post]

Foust on Upcoming Retirement — “Deciding to step down in 2023 was not easy, but Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) is ready to try some new challenges…He plans to stay involved on issues he cares about – such as affordable housing, economic development and climate change — and seek part-time consulting opportunities that ‘take advantage of the expertise that I’ve developed over the years.'” [Sun Gazette]

Salt Water Levels Rising in Region — “Once algae-pocked emblems of water pollution during the early 1970s, the Potomac River and the Occoquan Reservoir — the two sources of drinking water used by Fairfax Water to serve more than 2 million customers in Northern Virginia — are now trending in the wrong direction on salt, while the other contaminants have largely been cleaned up.” [The Washington Post]

Lorton Plant Gets Tech to Reduce Emissions — “Covanta, the company that runs the facilities, announced the installation of the pollution-fighting technology in a news release earlier this week, saying it has helped cut nitrogen oxide emissions by nearly 50%…The Fairfax County facility is located at its I-95 waste management complex in Lorton, and is one of the largest waste-to-energy facilities in the nation, according to the county.” [WTOP]

Report Grades Stream From Lake Barcroft — “Holmes Run, which flows through the Annandale area, is not in great condition, according to a report released Aug. 10 by the Audubon Naturalist Society…The report gives Holmes Run a grade of ‘moderately poor’ for climate, a rating of ‘good’ for access to nature, and ‘fair’ ratings for water quality and for biodiversity and habitat.” [Annandale Today]

California Firm Buys Local Defense Office Buildings — “The properties include six buildings at five locations in Fairfax County, Fairfax City and Loudoun County. They’re 96% leased to the likes of Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT), General Dynamics Corp. (NYSE: GD), The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC).” [Washington Business Journal]

Reston Turns Out for Trucks — “Thank you to all the families that came out for this year’s Totally Trucks event! For the past 22 years, Totally Trucks has delighted kids and adults alike, and this year was no different with more than 1000 people in attendance.” [Reston Association/Twitter]

Local Breweries Win Awards — “Vienna and Merrifield’s Caboose Brewing Company and Sweetwater Tavern scored several awards in the 2022 Virginia Craft Beer Cup, announced by the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild Monday. The Virginia Craft Beer Cup is the largest state competition of its kind in the U.S.” [Patch]

It’s Thursday — Possible drizzle in the morning. High of 85 and low of 73. Sunrise at 6:20 am and sunset at 8:10 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Trees at the corner of Jefferson Manor Park off Telegraph Road (photo by Brandi Bottalico)

Fairfax County is looking to grow a tree planting program that has resulted in 139 trees being planted along the Richmond Highway corridor since last year.

The “Residential Tree Planting Pilot Project” is a county-run program, in partnership with the D.C.-based nonprofit Casey Trees, providing free trees to residents in census tracts with low tree canopy coverage.

The three tracts targeted for the pilot program are all along the Richmond Highway corridor and within the Mount Vernon and Franconia Districts.

Since April 2021, residents living in those areas have planted 139 free trees on their properties. While a bit short of the 150-tree goal, the county has deemed the pilot program enough of a success to make it a “recurring program,” per an update to the Board of Supervisors last month.

The aim of the permanent program is to expand the tree canopy in other census tracts. A less expansive tree canopy often coincides with more “economically vulnerable neighborhoods,” Department of Public Works and Environmental Services spokesperson Sharon North wrote FFXnow in an email.

With that consideration, the program will be targeting census blocks in the Bailey’s Crossroads area of Fairfax County during its next planting cycle said North.

Money for the program will come out of the county’s Tree Preservation and Planting Fund and will be managed by a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. The fund’s current balance is $208,000, North said. Any additional funding recommendations will go to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors as part of its annual budget process.

Nearby localities like Arlington have similar programs to increase tree canopy in neighborhoods where it’s insufficient, which contributes to heat and temperature increases.

Back in 2021, Fairfax County staff identified 4,000 single-family and multi-family addresses within the three census tracts that would benefit from increased tree canopy.

Casey Trees devised a marketing campaign that sent out letters and greeting cards advertising the availability of free trees to those residents, who ultimately planted 139 trees.

That’s about a 3.5% success rate — higher than the industry average of 2%.

A majority of the trees planted were medium to large, including shingle oaks, river birches, hackberry trees, and honeylocust ‘shademasters.’

“Larger trees provide more shading, cooling, stormwater control, and related benefits over their smaller counterparts,” Casey Trees said in a report. “Not just to the property where the tree is planted but also to the neighborhood at large.”

The pilot program cost the county about $60,000, approximately $11,000 in marketing materials and close to $49,000 for the actual trees. It cost $350 per planted tree.

The report also provided a few recommendations to help grow the program.

Proposals included increasing the number of trees provided to one particular lot from three to five, noting that “residents often requested more,” as well as sending out arborists for site visits to increase education and displaying “free tree” yard signs in eligible neighborhoods.

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A Fairfax County-owned electric vehicle charger at the Bulova Center for Community Health in Merrifield (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax County’s growing supply of electric vehicle charging stations is available for the public to use, but that service will now come at a cost.

Under a retail fee plan approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last Tuesday (Aug. 3), members of the public and county employees using their personal vehicles will be charged 30 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) while electricity is being delivered.

A $2 per hour “dwell-time fee” will be imposed if the vehicle remains connected to the station more than 10 minutes after it’s fully charged.

Capped at $25 per session, the dwell-time fee is intended to discourage drivers from taking up a parking space when they don’t need the charging station, “freeing the space for other potential users,” according to a county staff report.

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, the board’s environmental committee chair, said the fees will make the stations available to the general community while prioritizing the county vehicles they’re primarily designed to serve.

“Every county has had to wrestle with, ‘How do we provide this kind of infrastructure for county vehicles, but also, how do we provide this for the public at large?'” Storck said. “I know many of us have been getting calls and questions and emails and people desiring more ability to charge their vehicles at county facilities. This clearly will move us in that direction.”

According to staff, the county has over 20 electric vehicle chargers covering 40 spaces at six sites, including the Fairfax County Government Center, the Pennino Building, the Herrity Building, the Public Safety Headquarters and the Bulova Center for Community Health.

Charging infrastructure was added at the Sully Community Center in July, and stations at the Herndon-Monroe and Innovation Center Metro station garages are also in the works, Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination (EEOC) Deputy Director Susan Hafeli told the board last week.

A total of 49 stations with over 80 spaces will be in place by the end of 2022, she said.

According to the staff report, the adopted charging fee is comparable to commercial providers. As of June, Electrify America was charging 43 cents per kWh for non-members and 31 cents per kWh, plus a monthly $4 fee for members in Fairfax County. Read More

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Solar panels (via Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr)

(Updated at 11:25 a.m. on 8/5/2022) Fairfax County is exploring being the first Virginia locality to create a “green bank” as a way to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors’ environmental committee last week, county staff said a green bank can help spur investments in clean energy.

Essentially, a green bank is a publicly-funded financial institution that helps fund, develop, and support clean energy technologies for both residential and commercial entities.

“A green bank can act as a program sponsor, a trusted advisor, and a clearing house of information for residents and the private sector,” John Morrill, from the county’s office of environmental and energy coordination, said in his presentation to the committee.

The board asked staff to look into the idea of a green bank two years ago, ultimately authorizing $300,000 for a feasibility study. The General Assembly also passed legislation last year letting localities set up their own.

So far, the feasibility study found that a green bank could lead to $650 million of investments in just the first five years. Those investments would focus on residential energy efficiency measures, rooftop solar panels for both county homes and businesses, and shifting commercial car fleets to electric.

“The role of a green bank would be to encourage and facilitate those investments through targeted programs, direct incentives, and partnerships with private financial institutions and service providers,” Morrill said.

A few committee members questioned whether the county’s green bank would be “crowding out” private investment that would have happened regardless.

“That’s probably the crux of the issue and the most challenging operational,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “It doesn’t do us any good to fund a project that would have happened otherwise.”

According to staff, a county-backed green bank could help homeowners better afford improvements like solar panels or help make decisions about what’s right for them. For example, the county could provide “cash incentives” for installing rooftop solar panels in exchange for the county getting the renewable energy credits.

Morrill also noted that a green bank could help make improvements for low and moderate-income households that could benefit from the potential savings.

Staff recommended the county create a green bank as a non-profit 501(c)(3) with a board that could include county officials.

While no Virginia locality has a green bank yet, it is becoming a trend nationwide that was actually kicked off by nearby Montgomery County, which is among the first localities in the country to set up a county-backed green bank. D.C. also has a green bank.

(Correction: This article previously stated that Montgomery County was the first U.S. locality to create a green bank. While the county has said that, it was preceded in 2010 by New York City, which also claims to have the nation’s first local green bank, and St. Lucie County in Florida, which formed the nonprofit Solar and Energy Loan Fund.)

Staff recommended that the board follow Montgomery County’s lead in committing “a mid-range investment” for a green bank with initial funding ranging from $3 million to $15 million.

Chairman Jeff McKay suggested the county could partner with other local jurisdictions, so that Fairfax County doesn’t have to bear the sole financial brunt for an initiative that would benefit the region.

Committee members expressed overall support for the green bank proposal and asked staff to complete the study.

Staff will complete a draft ordinance and provide an official funding recommendation in the fall. The matter could come before the environmental committee for a vote in October with a Board of Supervisors public hearing scheduled for late this year or early 2023.

“If we initiate this, we have a chance to start this up in a way that not only benefits Fairfax County residents but also other counties around us to hopefully move more quickly adoption of ways to save energy and optimize our reduction in greenhouse gases,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

Photo via Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr

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