Solar tours this weekend will showcase much more than solar panels

solar panels on a house

This house looks ordinary, but it boasts a superpower: its solar panels produce all the energy the homeowners use.

Innovative lighting, rain gardens, mini-split heat pumps, electric vehicles, and high-tech appliances—what do these have to do with solar panels? They will all be featured at homes and businesses opening their doors to the public on Saturday and Sunday, October 6 and 7, as part of the National Solar Tour.

You can find open houses and tours near you using this map or the listing on this site. For those in Northern Virginia, a downloadable booklet describes more than 40 solar and green homes participating in the Metro DC tour. The website also tells you where you can buy a hard copy if you prefer. Some homes didn’t make it into the booklet, which went to press over the summer.

The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) started the National tour more than two decades ago, but the Washington metro area tour is now in its 28thyear. This is pretty astonishing if you think about where solar technology was in 1990.

As a “tourist” during the early days, I remember the gee-whiz feeling I got exploring the handiwork of early solar adopters. It is the tragedy of my life that I live in the woods and can’t have my own solar panels. Fortunately, the tours have always been about more than just generating electricity. Back then, they had to be, because not many people could afford solar PV. Good design and energy efficiency took center stage.

Through the tours I learned about passive solar houses, solar hot water, insulation made from old blue jeans, natural light via “daylighting,” the incorporation of recycled materials into beautiful tile and countertops, eco-friendly siding materials, and how to live with nature using native plants and rain gardens. More recently the tours have branched out to include electric vehicles and green roofs.

This year’s Metro DC tour booklet includes new homes built to Passive House standards and loaded with cool features, but to my mind the more interesting entries are ordinary homes that have undergone a thoughtful retrofit. Here is a description of one of the latter:

This 1950s ranch house has solar PV, solar hot water, solar space heating, a cupola/solar chimney, solar daylight tubes, solar attic fan, solar sidewalk lights, south facing energy efficient windows, 2 highly efficient energy star minisplit heat pumps (26-SEER), a fireplace insert wood stove, exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS), CFL/LED lighting, kitchen counter tops made from recycled glass, and recycled floor tiles in the foyer and basement. The yard has a 1000-gallon cistern, food forest, 2 rain gardens, permeable walkways, 2 rain barrels, and 2 compost piles. There is also an aquaponics system, a Chevy Volt and a plug-in Prius. Installation by Greenspring Energy.

These renovations suggest an important point: reducing energy use doesn’t require us to tear down our homes and start over. And thank heavens for that, since most of us aren’t going to do that anyway.

Besides which, existing homes make up so much of our housing stock that making big efficiency gains depends on how well we retrofit and weatherize old homes. So if a house built in the 50s can be turned into a solar energy showcase, the rest of us should be taking notes.

Workshop Explores Local Government Clean Energy Financing Alternatives

Representatives from six local governments in Northern Virginia attended a workshop on budget-neutral, clean energy alternative financing options for local governments at the Fairfax County Government Center on September 7.

Presenters discussed financing approaches that can help local governments meet their energy and climate goals while saving taxpayer dollars. Specifically, the workshop covered Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) for solar projects and Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPCs) for a range of energy efficiency retrofits. These budget-neutral tools allow local governments to invest in long-term energy savings without the up-front costs.

Elected officials and local government staff, as well as representatives of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and community members attended the workshop organized by the Great Falls Group of the Sierra Club with the assistance of Fairfax Supervisor John Foust. The workshop was also televised for remote viewing.

The workshop video and background materials are available online.

Clean Energy Financing Workshop

More than 50 local government staff and community members attended the workshop organized by the Great Falls Group of the Sierra Club

Solar PPAs available for most Northern Virginia localities

 A PPA is a contract in which a local government agrees to purchase solar-generated energy from a solar developer at a set price over the term of the contract (typically 15-25 years). In his presentation, Eric Hurlocker of the GreeneHurlocker Law Firm explained why PPAs are attractive to local governments; they require no capital outlay, involve no fuel price risk, and make effective use of tax incentives, allowing local governments to focus on their core functions.

Eric Hurlocker

Eric Hurlocker attributes the surge in VA PPA projects to approaching sunset of the federal solar tax credit

Patricia Innocenti, Deputy Procurement Director for Fairfax County, stated the county will send out its first solar PPA request for proposals (RFP) for the Reston Community Center before the end of the year. This RFP also will encompass other Fairfax County government buildings. Fairfax County plans to draft the RFP so that other jurisdictions can ride the contract following contract award.

PPAs are governed by the terms of a pilot program applicable to customers of Dominion Energy Virginia, including localities that are members of the Virginia Energy Purchasing Governmental Association (VEPGA).

Click to view the fact sheet on on-site solar options for Virginia’s local governments.

Opportunities for local governments to receive state-level technical support for ESPCs

Nam Nguyen of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) presented the many advantages of ESPCs. The ESPC is a “financial mechanism to pay for today’s facility upgrades with tomorrow’s energy savings,” said Nguyen. Third-party contractors, called energy service companies (ESCOs), take on the investment risk, and state law requires the contractors to guarantee the energy savings for localities. DMME calculates that ESPCs have provided $860 million in energy savings in Virginia since 2001.

Nam Nguyen

Nam Nguyen, VA DMME, explains the many advantages of ESPCs and the technical and project management support his department provides to local governments

Nguyen made a Fact Sheet on ESPCs available to participants.

Justin Moss, Energy Coordinator for the Fairfax County Public Schools, said his department considers ESPCs “a very viable option to help replace aging equipment when we lack bond funding for that.” Their ESPC for 106 schools has saved $29 million in energy costs to date.

While smaller jurisdictions often know ESPCs could save them millions of dollars, they fear they lack staff and expertise to manage ESPC projects. This is where DMME comes in. Nguyen explained that his department provides technical and engineering support to ensure governments are empowered to negotiate good terms for the contract. DMME also provides hands-on project management support throughout the duration of the contract. Since there is no charge for requesting an initial energy audit to determine the feasibility of pursuing an ESPC project at government-owned facilities, it is a wonder why more Virginia localities do not take greater advantage of this financing tool.

Click to view the full-length workshop video.

After the grid mod bill, the SCC wants to know how much authority it still has over utility spending

offshore wind turbines

Offshore wind turbines, Copenhagen, Denmark. Dominion Energy has asked the SCC for permission to proceed with building two wind turbines off the Virginia coast as a test project. Photo by Ivy Main.

It’s no secret the State Corporation Commission didn’t like this year’s big energy bill, the Grid Transformation and Security Act. SCC staff testified against SB 966 in committee, and their objections played a major role in amendments removing the “double dip” provision that would have let Dominion Energy Virginia double its earnings on infrastructure projects. Since passage of the bill, the SCC has raised questions about the constitutionality of the law’s provisions favoring in-state renewable energy, and its staff has issued broadsides about the costs of the legislation.

Now the SCC is mulling the question of how much authority it still has to reject Dominion’s proposals for spending under the bill. Dominion has filed for approval of a solar power purchase agreement (case number PUR-2018-00135) and two offshore wind test turbines it plans to erect in federal waters 24 nautical miles out from Virginia Beach (PUR-2018-00121). The utility has also requested permission to spend a billion dollars on grid upgrades and smart meters (PUR-2018-00100).

In an order issued September 12, the SCC asked participants in the solar and offshore wind cases to brief them on legal issues arising from the legislation. The SCC has focused in on two new sections of the Virginia Code. One is the language making it “in the public interest” for a utility to buy, build, or purchase the output of up to 5,000 megawatts (MW) of Virginia-based wind or solar by January 1, 2024. The SCC noted that subsection A of the provision says such a facility “is in the public interest, and the Commission shall so find if required to make a finding regarding whether such construction or purchase is in the public interest.”

The other new Code section gives a utility the right to petition the SCC at any time for a “prudency determination” for construction or purchase of a solar or wind project located in Virginia or off its coast, or for the purchase of the output of such a project if developed by someone else.

Together these sections give Dominion a good deal of latitude, but they don’t actually force the SCC to approve a project it thinks is a bad deal for ratepayers. In other words, wind and solar may be in the public interest, but that doesn’t mean every wind and solar project has to be approved.

The SCC asked for briefs on seven questions:

  • What are the specific elements that the utility must prove for the Commission to determine that the project is prudent under Subsection F?
  • Is the “prudency determination” in Subsection F different from the “public interest” findings mandated by Subsections A or E?
  • Do the public interest findings mandated by either Subsections A or E supersede a determination under Subsection F that a project is not prudent? If not, then what is the legal effect of either of the mandated public interest findings?
  • If the construction (or purchase or leasing) is statutorily deemed in the public interest, is there any basis upon which the Commission could determine that such action is not prudent? If so, identify such basis or bases.
  • In determining whether the project is prudent, can the Commission consider whether the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are needed; and (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources?
  • Do the statutorily-mandated public interest findings under either Subsections A or E override a factual finding that the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are not needed for the utility to serve its customers; and/or (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources, including but not limited to sources of a type similar to the proposed project?
  • Does the utility need a certificate of public convenience and necessity, or any other statutory approval from the Commission, before constructing the proposed projects?

Even if the Commission decides it has latitude in deciding which wind and solar projects to approve, that doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the two projects at issue. The SCC could still decide they meet the standard for prudency and approve them.

Oral argument on the issues is scheduled for October 4.

Should approval of smart meters depend on how the meters will be used?

The SCC is also mulling over its authority in the grid modernization docket. One day after it asked lawyers in the solar and offshore wind cases to weigh in on the meaning of prudency, it issued a similar order asking for input on what the new law means by “reasonable and prudent” in judging spending under the grid modernization provisions. (Yes, the grid mod section of the law insists that spending be “reasonable” in addition to “prudent,” begging the question of whether spending can be prudent but not reasonable. Perhaps thankfully, the SCC order does not pursue it.)

The SCC’s questions to the lawyers show an interest in one especially important point: Dominion wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of customer money on smart meters, without using them smartly. Smart meters enable time-of-use rates and customer control over energy use, and make it easier to incorporate distributed generation like rooftop solar. None of these are in Dominion’s plan. Is it reasonable and prudent for Dominion to install the meters anyway, just because they are one of the categories of spending that the law allows?

Or as the SCC put it:

If the evidence demonstrates that advanced metering infrastructure enables time-of- use (also known as real-time) rates and that such (and potentially other) rate designs advance the stated purposes of the statute, i.e., they accommodate or facilitate the integration of customer-owned renewable electric generation resources and/or promote energy efficiency and conservation, may the Commission consider the inclusion or absence of such rate designs in determining whether a plan and its projected costs are reasonable and prudent?

Reading the tea leaves at the SCC: Staff comments on Dominion’s IRP

The SCC’s question about smart meters surely indicates how the commissioners feel about the matter: they’d like to reject spending on smart meters, at least until Dominion is ready to use them smartly. If the SCC concludes it has the authority to reject this part of Dominion’s proposal as not “reasonable and prudent,” it seems likely to do so.

It is harder to know where the SCC might land on the solar and offshore wind spending. The SCC’s staff, at least, are skeptical of Dominion’s plans to build lots of new solar generation. In response to Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Commission staff questioned whether Dominion was going to need any new electric generation at all, given the flattening out of demand. But if it does, according to the testimony of Associate Deputy Director Gregory Abbott, Dominion ought to consider a new combined-cycle (baseload) gas plant, not solar. (Combined-cycle gas was the one generating source Dominion almost completely ruled out.)

Abbott criticized Dominion’s presentation of the case for solar, though he took note of the technology’s dramatic cost declines. Instead of seeing that as a reason to invest, however, he suggested it would be better to wait for further cost declines, or at least leave the construction of solar to third-party developers who can provide solar power more cheaply than the utility can. Remarkably, he also suggested Dominion offer rebates to customers who install solar, urging that Dominion’s spending under the grid transformation law “is designed specifically to handle these [distributed energy resources].”

Abbott also seemed supportive of Dominion’s venture into offshore wind. The only offshore wind energy in the IRP is the 12 MW demonstration project known as CVOW, but as Abbott noted, “the Company indicated that it will pursue a much larger roll-out of utility-scale offshore wind, beginning in 2024, if the demonstration project shows it to be economic.”

This suggests staff are inclined to support Dominion’s spending on the CVOW project, but for Abbott, it was one more reason Dominion should not invest in solar. He concluded, “If the demonstration project proves that utility-scale offshore wind is economic compared to solar, then it may make sense to get the results of the CVOW demonstration project before deploying a large amount of solar.”

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24.

Does the SCC finally see the light on customer-owned solar?

two men installing solar panels on a roof

Photo credit NREL.

Almost four years ago, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved a request from Appalachian Power to impose “standby charges” on grid-connected homeowners who installed solar arrays between 10 and 20 kilowatts (kW). The approval came not long after the SCC had given the same authority to Dominion Power (now Dominion Energy Virginia).

The standby charges, dubbed a “tax on the sun,” effectively shut down the market for these larger home systems. Since then, Virginia utilities have made no bones about their desire to dismantle the rest of the Virginia law that has enabled the growth of the private solar market.

The law permits solar owners to “net meter,” giving them credit at the retail rate for the electricity they feed onto the grid on sunny days, and letting them use that credit when they draw electricity from the grid at other times.

Utilities say net metering customers don’t pay their fair share of grid costs. Solar advocates say the subsidy runs the other way: both the utility and society at large benefit when more customers install solar. Independent studies find the “value of solar” to be above the retail rate; utility-funded studies find much lower values. In Virginia, the debate continues to rage, but in 2014, at least, the SCC came down squarely on the utility’s side.

Fast forward to 2018. This year the General Assembly passed a law called the Grid Transformation and Security Act that, among other things, envisions an electric grid of the future that incorporates distributed generation like rooftop solar. And suddenly the staff of the SCC sees customer-owned solar in a new light.

Members of the Commission staff filed testimony last month in response to Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, which proposes large amounts of utility-built and owned solar. Associate Deputy Director Gregory Abbott devoted much of his testimony to bashing Dominion’s solar plans.

But just when a reader might have concluded that Abbott hates solar, he pivoted to the suggestion that Dominion should consider offering rebates for customers who install their own rooftop solar:

Given that the Company is developing a Grid Transformation Plan that is designed specifically to integrate customer-level DERs [distributed energy resources], and given the Company’s peak load forecast, Staff believes the Company should explore developing a rebate program to incent customer-owned rooftop solar systems. Staff believes that it is logical to incent these DERs particularly since the Company’s Grid Transformation Plan pursuant to the GTSA is designed specifically to handle these DERs. Staff also notes that such a program could be considered to be a peak shaving program and eligible for cost recovery through Rider CIA. To the extent that the program passed the economic tests, it may obviate the need for some of the more expensive capacity resources as described in the Company’s proposed build plan. Such a program would be more environmentally benign as it would take advantage of
existing brownfield sites rather than the greenfield sites required for utility-scale
 solar.

These are, of course, precisely the arguments made by advocates for distributed solar.

The support from SCC staff comes at an opportune moment, as the Northam Administration considers making distributed solar a centerpiece of its new Energy Plan. It could also complicate Dominion’s efforts to limit and penalize customer investments in solar. Last year Dominion’s opposition doomed a raft of bills intended to make it easier for customers to use Virginia’s net metering law. When solar advocates try again in the 2019 session, having the support of the SCC could change the minds of legislators who, until now, have been happy to accept Dominion’s arguments.

All this assumes the SCC commissioners agree with their staff on the value of customer-owned solar to the grid. If they do, it could signal a new day in Virginia for customer-owned solar.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury, the new, non-profit on-line news source founded by Robert Zullo, formerly a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

Dominion gets the nod to sell solar energy to us regular folks

alternative energy building clouds energy

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s so-called Community Solar pilot program, under which the utility will offer its residential and commercial customers the output of solar farms to be built by independent solar developers here in Virginia.

Customers will have the option to meet either all or part of their electric demand with solar. The added cost of the program, at least initially, will be 2.01 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). For a customer who uses an average of 1,000 kWh monthly and wants to use only solar, that would add up to a premium of $20.10 per month.

Customers who want to meet just a portion of their total demand with solar will have the option of subscribing to “blocks” consisting of 100 kWh, up to a maximum of 5 blocks for residential customers or 10 blocks for non-residential customers.

The premium cost of the program may surprise customers who have heard that large-scale solar is now one of the cheapest sources of energy in Virginia. But according to Will Cleveland, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who helped to develop the program, cost was not the only consideration in choosing which solar facilities to include in the program.

Facilities were selected to be smaller and distributed around the state, in keeping with the “community” concept, which meant they sometimes came with higher prices. Program costs also include Dominion’s costs of administration and marketing. Cleveland says he consulted experts who advised him these numbers were reasonable.

In addition to selling the electrical output of the solar facilities to customers, Dominion will retire the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs). The RECs represent the legal proof that the energy comes from solar, an important factor for commercial customers that wish to represent they use renewable energy in their business. “Retiring” the RECs guarantees that Dominion isn’t also selling them elsewhere.

The program is a result of legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2017 that authorized a three-year pilot program in Dominion’s territory for up to 40 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity. The legislation also authorized Appalachian Power to develop up to 10 MW for a similar program. To date, Appalachian Power has not submitted a proposal.

Although the program is called “community solar,” customers will not own shares in the solar facilities, and the facilities do not have to be located in the same communities as the customers. Virginia law does not permit the kind of community solar in which customers share in the ownership and output of solar facilities.

Calling Dominion’s program “community solar” is bound to confuse people, and it’s hard not to believe that was a calculated move on the utility’s part. Yet Dominion’s solar offering is a major step forward for the company, and for customers who aren’t able to put solar panels on their own rooftops.

And while it is somewhat more expensive than the company’s Green Power Program, it should prove much more attractive with people who understand the difference between the programs.

Subscribers to the Green Power Program don’t get electricity from renewable energy; Dominion sells them regular “brown” power, then tacks on an added charge to match the dirty energy with renewable energy certificates (RECs). Most of the RECs come from existing wind projects in other states, where wind is already the cheapest power source. By contrast, the solar program provides solar energy (and the RECs) from new Virginia solar farms, ones that would not get built otherwise.

Dominion is expected to begin signing up subscribers for its solar program later this fall, with the program getting underway once the solar projects come online next year. For those of us without the sunny roofs needed to put up our own solar panels, this promises to be—for now—the next best option.

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury, a new (and if I do say so, quite excellent) independent online news source dedicated to covering Virginia issues that matter. 

Northam’s energy plan: A blueprint for action or destined for dusty shelf?

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam standing in front of a new solar farm.

Governor Northam speaks at the opening of the Palmer Solar Center on May 23.

[Note: A version of this post originally appeared in Virginia Mercury on July 23. Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, independent online news organization that launched this summer. Subscribe to its free daily newsletter here.]

Forget “all of the above.” Under Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia’s next Energy Plan will emphasize the features of a clean energy future: solar and wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, and offshore wind. This marks a welcome departure from previous state energy plans, though whether the end result serves as a blueprint for action or just stuffing for a filing cabinet remains to be seen.

Since 2007, Virginia law has required the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to write a ten-year Energy Plan in the first year of every new administration. The statute lists vague requirements for the plan, including that it be consistent with the Commonwealth Energy Policy, itself a toothless statute. That means each new governor can pretty much tell DMME what to focus on.

Previous governors’ plans have read more like campaign rhetoric than like meaningful indicators of an administration’s direction. Tim Kaine’s plan supported carbon reductions, but by the next spring Kaine was promoting construction of a coal plant in Wise County that would become one of the last coal plants ever built in America.

Bob McDonnell used his energy plan to announce Virginia as the Energy Capital of the East Coast, perhaps the strongest indication that Energy Plans need not be tethered to reality.

Terry McAuliffe pushed an “all of the above” agenda, heavy on offshore drilling, natural gas, and offshore wind. He later backpedaled on offshore drilling, went all in on gas pipelines, and forgot about offshore wind.

Northam surely feels the pressure to write a pro-clean energy plan, and not merely because economic trends have swung decisively in favor of wind and solar. In his short time in office, Governor Northam has deeply undermined his standing as an environmentalist. Even before his inauguration, his public silence about gas pipeline projects fed rumors of private support. Once in office, he caved early on negotiations with Dominion Energy over this year’s energy legislation; reappointed David Paylor, the controversial director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whom he had promised to replace; and passed up a rare opportunity to appoint a progressive to the State Corporation Commission.

One bright spot remains DEQ’s work towards completion of rules to lower carbon emissions from power plants by trading carbon allowances with states to the north of us. But the plan is not yet finalized, and the devil (or Dominion’s fingerprints) may prove to be in the details.

The Energy Plan gives Northam an opportunity to change the subject, and possibly even to change course. DMME’s presentation at its initial public meeting on June 25 addressed only clean energy topics—no coal, no natural gas, no nuclear, no oil. For some topics, the agency has already proposed recommendations for policy changes and scheduled public meetings to discuss them.

In the solar and wind “stakeholder track,” DMME proposes to “increase the residential cap on net metering from 20 kW to 40 kW; increase the overall net metering program from 1% of the utility’s peak load to 3% of peak load; make third-party Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) available throughout all utility service territories; increase the total PPA installation cap from 50 MW to 100 MW and increase the installation-specific cap from 1 MW to 2 MW.” These recommendations are guaranteed to be popular with solar advocates and industry members, but won’t get past the utility blockade without a fight.

Recommendations for other tracks run the gamut from practical to aspirational. A recommendation to track energy consumption by state agencies through an energy data registry and dashboard is specific and achievable. Less so is the recommendation for Virginia to “reach the voluntary goal of reducing energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020.” Yes, that would be nice, but getting there would require a level of utility cooperation we have never seen in Virginia, and that neither the General Assembly nor any previous governor has had the tenacity to fight for.

The fact that our utilities are so often barriers to positive change underscores a need for the Energy Plan to address one subject missing from DMME’s list: a comprehensive study of grid transformation. Within the next ten years covered by the Energy Plan, our electric grid will need to incorporate vastly more wind and solar generation (much of it consumer-sited), plus electric vehicle charging, battery storage, and new metering technology that gives consumers greater control over their energy use.

Left to their own devices, the utilities will create the energy generation and delivery system most profitable for themselves, not the one most efficient and beneficial for the public. If Governor Northam is serious about a clean energy future, his Energy Plan should kick off a comprehensive study of grid transformation, managed by an independent expert who can help DMME and stakeholders develop a specific, actionable roadmap for the future of Virginia’s energy economy.

Without such a roadmap, we are likely to make progress only in fits and starts and at greater expense than necessary. Utility bills are rising and will keep going up as a result of the legislation Northam supported. Now the Governor needs to make sure Virginians have something to show for it.

Solar map locates Northern Virginia on the dark side of the metro region

people standing by solar panels on a high school.

The 90 kW of solar panels on the roof of Wakefield High School represent almost 5% of Arlington’s solar total. Arlington schools have been a bright spot in Northern Virginia’s otherwise lackluster solar performance. Photo credit Phil Duncan.

Those of us who’ve lately become bullish on Virginia solar got a rude wake-up call this week when the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) updated its map showing the amount of solar installed in every locality in Northern Virginia and the greater Washington region. Stunningly, every single suburban Maryland jurisdiction did better than every single Virginia jurisdiction. So did Washington, DC.

The map reveals that as of the end of 2017, Fairfax County had the most solar of any Virginia locality measured, reflecting its status as Virginia’s most populous county. Fairfax boasted a cumulative capacity of 2,104 kilowatts (kW) of solar, edging out Virginia’s richest county, Loudoun, which came in with 1,878 kW, as well as much smaller but more liberal Arlington with 1,785 kW.

All the Northern Virginia jurisdictions together (which also included Prince William, Manassas, Alexandria, and Falls Church) boasted a total of 8,443 kW, spread across 1,112 systems. That’s an average of about 7.5 kW per system, meaning these are overwhelmingly rooftop solar installations on homes and businesses. (An average home solar system is about 5 or 6 kW. Using solar for all of a home’s electricity needs might require 8-10 kW or more, especially if the home is heated with electricity or includes an electric vehicle.)

NoVa’s 8,443 kW is about as much as Prince George’s County, Maryland alone had five years ago. Today, PG County leads the region with 136,507 kW. Added together, the Maryland suburban localities finished the year with 272,688 kW of solar, over 32 times the suburban Virginia total. Washington, with 40,954 kW, beat all of suburban Virginia almost five times over.

So what do Maryland and DC have that Virginia doesn’t have? One answer is incentives. Maryland and DC have mandatory renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require utilities to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from solar generated in state, including from their own customers. As the percentage requirement increases year after year, the forces of supply and demand set prices for solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) that make solar a profitable investment for consumers. In DC, the value of SRECs is currently so high that a home solar installation can pay for itself in less than four years. In Virginia, with the federal 30% tax credit but no RPS or SREC market, payback may take ten years.

Ten years is still not a bad payoff for solar panels that can produce free electricity for 40 years or more. That points to the other advantage Maryland and DC have over Virginia: pro-solar policies. Virginia law does provide for net metering, the policy that lets a solar customer put surplus power onto the grid during the day and receive a credit for it that is used against the same amount of power drawn from the grid at night. Without net metering, we would have very little rooftop solar at all.

But a whole host of restrictions apply to net metering in Virginia. Homeowners are limited to a 20 kW system, and utilities can (and do) apply punitive fees known as “standby charges” to residential systems over 10 kW. Commercial customers are limited to 1,000 kW, no matter how much space they have or how much electricity they use. Sharing solar arrays among customers is prohibited. A building owner cannot install solar and sell the electricity to tenants. A local government cannot install solar on a vacant lot and use it to power a building across the street. Only certain customers can use third-party ownership financing.

And if the market flourishes anyway, Virginia law puts a ceiling on the total capacity of net-metered systems. Once the total reaches 1% of a utility’s sales, the program will come to a screeching halt. Think of it as an anti-RPS.

This year the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that encourages Virginia utilities to develop solar, but the bill failed to address the barriers holding back private investments in solar. Other bills that would have opened up the market failed in the Republican-controlled (and utility-friendly) Commerce and Labor committees.

Barrier-busting bills will certainly be back again next year, and local governments that want more solar in their communities should make sure these reforms are part of their legislative wish list. Meanwhile, there is room under current law for local governments and schools to install a lot more solar than they have to date. Leading by example is a powerful tool to capture the attention of the public, educate residents on the benefits of solar, and instill pride in the community.

Localities can also help residents and businesses go solar by promoting solar coops like Solarize NoVa, offering low-cost financing via commercial PACE loans(as Arlington is doing), and setting expectations for developers.

Maryland and DC may still beat Virginia on solar over the next few years, but it shouldn’t happen without a fight.