Every year, on the first weekend in October, homeowners and businesses across the U.S. open their doors to a special kind of tourist: the solar wannabe. The American Solar Energy Society’s annual Solar Tour features homes with solar PV and hot water, along with an assortment of “green living” features that inspire envy and emulation.
Envy especially, I’m here to tell you. My home in the Northern Virginia suburbs is surrounded by beautiful mature trees that provide shade for my house, cooling for the neighborhood, carbon sequestration for the planet, and food for an abundance of insects, birds and other wildlife. What it doesn’t provide is a sunny place on the roof for solar panels. So when I go to houses on the DC Metro area tour, it’s a teeth-gritting experience.
I’m hardly alone. Less than a quarter of residents can install solar panels at their homes. The rest either have shade or other siting issues, or they are renters, or they live in condominiums where they don’t control the roof and common areas. That leaves the vast majority of us solar wannabes with nowhere to turn.
Some states let customers choose their electricity suppliers, which means they can select one that will supply them with renewable energy. But Virginia upholds the rights of monopolists to control our electricity supply. And my local monopolist, Dominion Virginia Power, sells only one electricity product: a mix of coal, nuclear, and natural gas, with barely a smidgen of stuff the legislature considers renewable (mainly wood trucked in from forests and burned).
I could subscribe to Dominion’s Green Power Program, but I’d still get the exact same dirty power. I’d just be paying extra for renewable energy certificates (RECs), mostly from wind farms in other states.
RECs don’t do it for me. Adding money to my utility bill for RECs is about as satisfying as buying a gallon of ordinary milk and adding a dollar extra to know that a buyer in Indiana paid for ordinary milk but got organic. Maybe both milks taste the same, but that’s not the point.
No, if I’m buying RECs, I want them to come attached to actual, Virginia-made wind or solar power. I know I’m not alone; the 20,000 people who have signed up for the Green Power Program, plus those who buy from other REC sellers like Pear and Arcadia, are proof that if Dominion cared to build wind or solar, it would find a ready market.
But it hasn’t. And Dominion also refuses to let the private market do the job. I’ve been approached by would-be solar developers who ask why they can’t put a solar array on unproductive farmland and sell the power to people like me. When that happens I swoon with delight for a moment, then glumly point them to the experience of Washington and Lee University three years ago. The university wanted to buy solar from a project on its campus but owned by a developer. Dominion came down on them like a ton of bricks, claiming a violation of its monopoly.
Dominion also opposes allowing customers to pool their money for a shared solar project, like an array on one house that could provide electricity for two or more. Sometimes called community net metering or solar gardens, and a growing trend in other states, shared solar unleashes the power of private investment by freeing up customers to build and own solar together and get credit on their utility bills for their percentage of the electricity the project puts on the grid. Imagine how much new economic activity we could create this way, and how much clean generation we could build, without state government mandates or subsidies.
There are thousands of Virginians like me who want renewable energy and are willing to pay for it. If our utilities don’t want to build it, they should step aside and let customers do it.