Green buildings help the poor (and could help the rest of us, too)

This post originally appeared as an OpEd in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 25, 2014.

Better Housing Coalition’s Somanath Senior Apartments in Richmond, VA. Photo credit: BHC

Better Housing Coalition’s Somanath Senior Apartments in Richmond, VA. Photo credit: BHC

If you think of “green” homes and solar panels as luxury amenities for high-end housing, you might be surprised to learn that these are becoming standard features in low-income housing—even here in Virginia.

Buildings with added insulation, better windows, energy-saving light fixtures and Energy Star appliances translate into big savings on utility bills. This should matter to all of us, but it’s especially important for low-income households. For them, lower energy bills can mean not having to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.

Reducing energy costs is equally important for low-income housing owned by the government or nonprofits. Using energy efficiency and renewable energy to lower utility bills saves the public money and makes it possible to keep rents stable.

Recognizing these benefits, ten years ago the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) began to incentivize green building techniques. As a result, when government agencies and nonprofits build low-income housing in Virginia today, they make green building a priority.

Today there are over 11,000 units of affordable housing in Virginia that are certified to EarthCraft standards, one of the strictest measures of home energy efficiency. According to Philip Agee, Green Building Technical Manager for EarthCraft Virginia, these new affordable housing units are 28% more efficient than homes that are built to the 2004 model housing code. Units renovated to EarthCraft standards average a 43% improvement in efficiency.

Richmond-based Better Housing Coalition now builds all its low-income housing to exceed EarthCraft standards. As its website explains, “Installing energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, energy efficient windows and lighting, and blown cellulose insulation are standard practice for BHC homes. So, too, is the use of durable cement-board siding and tankless water heaters. Reduced energy usage means reduced utility bills for our owners and residents.”

Even more striking is the inclusion of solar energy in recent projects. Many of the Better Housing Coalition’s buildings include solar PV panels for electricity and solar thermal systems for hot water. Last year the Better Housing Coalition built the first net-zero-energy apartments for low-income residents, combining super-efficient construction with solar to produce as much energy as residents consume.

Another leader in the solar movement is Community Housing Partners, a non-profit that designs and builds low-income housing throughout the Southeast. It has worked with Virginia Supportive Housing to include solar panels on at least four of its recent projects, each system sized to provide 20% of the building’s electricity.

The Heron’s Landing apartments, in Chesapeake, include both 61 kilowatts of solar PV and a 13-kilowatt solar thermal array to supply hot water to the 60-unit complex designed for formerly homeless residents. Across the state in Charlottesville, The Crossings includes 33 kilowatts of solar PV and a 76-kilowattt solar thermal system for 62 units serving homeless and low-income residents. Both projects used Charlottesville-based AltEnergy as the solar contractor, supporting solar jobs in state. Paul Risberg, AltEnergy’s CEO, says his firm is currently working on two more Virginia projects.

Solar systems are also part of the Community Housing Partners’ developments in Richmond (Studios at South Richmond) and Portsmouth (the attractive South Bay Apartments). Now, like the Better Housing Coalition, the organization plans to take the next step, making its latest housing development for low-income seniors in Christiansburg, Virginia net-zero

Municipalities, too, are working solar into their plans for low-income housing.  Last year the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority worked with Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC to install solar on its Polly Lineweaver apartment building, which serves elderly and disabled residents. According to a local television report, the contract will save the Authority money over time and help keep rents stable.

Building “green” is proving such a money-saver for low-income housing that it’s a shame Virginia isn’t applying this lesson more widely. The state’s failure last year to adopt the 2012 model building code standards means that even buyers of brand-new homes won’t be guaranteed the level of quality built into these low-income apartments. Let’s hope the McAuliffe administration takes note and changes course.



American Wind Energy Association to highlight Virginia potential at June conference

Works of art, attractively priced. Photo credit: Andy Beecroft

Works of art, attractively priced.
Photo credit: Andy Beecroft

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) will be sponsoring a one-day forum on wind energy in Harrisonburg, Virginia on June 3. The Virginia Wind Center at James Madison University will host; others partners include the Department of Environmental Quality, the Sierra Club and the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition.

Virginia currently has only a handful of small wind turbines statewide, putting us far behind neighboring states like Maryland and West Virginia. But AWEA’s Larry Flowers, who leads the team organizing the event, says his trade association sees great potential in the Commonwealth.

With good sites for about 2,000 megawatts (MW) of land-based wind farms, and at least another 2,000 MW already slated for development offshore, Virginia could experience a wind boom in coming years.

“With Virginia’s good on- and offshore wind resource, significant load, and proximity to the PJM market, AWEA’s wind developers see Virginia as an important wind energy market,” says Flowers. “Wind has been an important diversification strategy with utilities all over the country with its fuel price and carbon risk avoidance features, while providing significant long-term local economic development benefits.”

Achieving this development will be no easy feat. Virginia does not have a Renewable Portfolio Standard requiring utilities to buy wind power, a standard policy feature in northeastern states. Nor do we offer the kind of economic incentives developers need to make wind power cost-competitive with our old, fully-depreciated coal and nuclear plants, or with electricity from natural gas at today’s low prices. (Wind power is the cheapest form of energy in some prairie states, but it is costs more to build in our mountains and offshore.) Wind is endlessly renewable and emission-free, but until we put a value on that, our utilities and regulators see little point in paying for it

Yet that calculus may be changing as wind costs continue to decline, coal grows increasingly expensive, and natural gas prices show their historic volatility. At least as significantly, wind energy could be a means of helping Virginia comply with the EPA’s carbon regulations under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. The regulations for existing sources have not been proposed yet, but may allow states to reduce their overall carbon emissions by adding renewable energy to their electric generation mix.

Certainly, wind development would be a huge economic opportunity here. Offshore wind development is projected to create ten thousand career-length jobs in Virginia and bring millions of dollars in new economic activity to the state, especially to the Hampton Roads region. Land-based wind would be a boon to the economically hard-hit counties of southwest Virginia, where coal jobs have been disappearing steadily for more than twenty years. In addition to jobs and payments to landowners, wind farms would provide critical local tax revenue.

These policy issues will be featured topics at the AWEA forum, along with practical issues including siting, wildlife impacts, and small wind applications.

Registration for the Virginia wind energy forum is available here. Early bird discount pricing is available until May 13.


Dominion Power buys California solar, and Virginians wonder, “Why not us?”


solar installation public domainThe news broke on April Fools’ Day, making Virginians feel we were the victims of a bad joke: Dominion Power announced it had bought six California solar projects, for a total capacity of 139 megawatts (MW). “This investment is another important step forward for Dominion as we expand our renewable energy portfolio,” said Dominion Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas F. Farrell II. “These projects fit well within our portfolio of regulated and long-term contracted assets,” which also include 41 MW of solar in Georgia, Connecticut and Indiana.

Don’t get excited, Virginia: this solar investor is not Dominion Virginia Power but Dominion Resources, the parent company. You can be sure executives will take every opportunity to brag about the company’s stake in the national solar market, but none of this power will reach us here in the Commonwealth.

Here, Dominion owns a grand total of one solar array at a university, all of 132 kilowatts. That’s about 14 houses’ worth, out of a customer base of 2.4 million. A 500-kilowatt array on an industrial building is set to deploy soon. That will bring the grand total to maybe 70 houses’ worth, if the owners don’t leave the lights on too much. Dominion is supposed to be developing a total of 30 MW of solar under a law passed in 2012, but the glacial pace of deployment is discouraging. Oh, and neither of its first two projects employed Virginia solar companies, further minimizing their impact in the state.

Why isn’t Dominion investing in Virginia? “The cost of large solar projects such as this are still too high for a regulated market in Virginia,” Dominion spokesman Dan Genest told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

You might ask, if the costs of solar power are too high for a regulated market, perhaps it is time to deregulate the market? Somehow I don’t think that’s what Genest meant. More likely he meant that Virginia’s regulatory scheme is so skewed in favor of fossil fuels that there’s no space for utility-scale solar. Not that he would put it quite so bluntly—or admit to his employer’s role in creating this problem.

But let’s review the facts: Dominion has lavished $6.6 million over the last ten years on Virginia lawmakers, ensuring the company’s dominance in our political process. Dominion writes our energy laws and shepherds them through the legislative committees it controls. It has molded both the rules of the game and the way Virginia regulators apply them: favoring fossil fuel generation such as the expensive Wise County coal plant, ignoring costs to the public from air and water pollution, and blocking all attempts at reform.

Dominion has so shaped Virginia’s energy policy that it wouldn’t get permission from the State Corporation Commission to add a utility-scale solar project to its generation mix today. The company now finds itself a captive within the very walls it built to protect its profit and defend itself from competition, and just at a time when the world outside its walls is offering all kinds of interesting opportunities.

But there are ways out. Dominion could support a solar mandate in the General Assembly, on grounds that range from energy security to fuel diversity to preparing for a major natural disaster. Solar on gas station roofs can keep the pumps working when the electric grid fails; solar on hospitals and police stations can power essential services even when supply disruptions idle fossil-fueled generators. The more legislators understand the unique potential of solar, the easier it will be for Dominion to overcome the bias against renewable energy that it helped instill in the first place.

Or Dominion could support the value-of-solar methodology recently adopted in Minnesota that rewards solar development instead of penalizing it. Minnesota is not much known for sunshine, but its analysis of the costs and benefits of solar energy demonstrated a value for solar that exceeds even the full retail price of fossil-fired electricity. Adopting this analysis would be an about-face for Dominion; the company only recently won the right to levy punitive standby charges on some solar customers, and it has signalled a desire to impose them on the rest of the solar market as well, all on the theory that solar is of no more value than dirty power bought wholesale off the grid.

So okay, my suggestion has Tom Farrell spitting out his coffee, but bear with me. There is money to be made here.

Solar energy is no longer a marginal energy source for niche markets. Its price is going down; its market share is going up. Dominion’s own forays into solar show the company knows it has to play in this market or get left behind. So it makes more sense for Dominion to support a market in Virginia, where its influence will ensure the company profits handsomely, than to try to hold back the tide, as it is doing now. Sure, success would also mean independent rooftop solar installers would flourish in Virginia, but that’s a small price to pay for creating a whole new market in utility-scale solar that Dominion would own.

And then there’s the attraction of a carbon-free energy source in a climate-change world. A major foray into the Virginia solar market will help Dominion comply with the federal carbon rule the EPA is expected to announce in June. After all, no matter how you feel about federal rules, there are only two ways to deal with them: comply, or throw a tantrum and then comply.

It’s a fact that Dominion’s initial forays into developing solar have not inspired confidence. Dominion spends too much and takes too long to do something the private sector does better and cheaper. But Virginia has a solar industry that is champing at the bit to develop these projects and put Virginians to work in the process. Dominion may as well take advantage of other companies’ expertise here, the way it has in California.

As the saying goes: Lead, follow or get out of the way. I would settle for any one of the three. And any of them are better than what we have now in Virginia, with Dominion standing in the middle of the road, going nowhere, and blocking progress.

.   .   .   .   .

UPDATE: Installation of Dominion’s second solar array is now complete, reports the Associated Press. The story says that the more than 2,000 panels on the Canon Environmental Technology plant in Gloucester, VA make this the biggest rooftop array in Virginia. However, that honor would seem to remain with the Ikea store in Woodbridge, which has 2,100 panels providing 504 kW. The Ikea array, dedicated in 2012, is outside of Dominion’s territory, so the Dominion array may be the largest in its own territory.

Alert readers will notice that Ikea uses a government calculator to compute that its 504 kW is enough to power 55 homes, while Dominion claims its 500 kW could power 125 homes. Ikea’s calculation fits with normal industry assumptions. But perhaps Dominion is predicting 120% more sunshine?