A 5-year plan for economic growth: 10% solar and 50,000 new jobs

Source: The Solar Foundation

A new analysis from the non-profit Solar Foundation shows Virginia could create 50,400 jobs if it commits to building enough solar energy in the next five years to provide just 10% of our electricity supply.

The analysis takes the form of an “infographic” showing the implications of 10% solar. It would require building 15,000 megawatts of solar, divided among utility-scale solar farms, commercial installations, and the rooftops of houses. At the end of 2016, Virginia had a total of only 241 MW of solar installed, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of total electricity consumption. Getting to 10% by the end of 2023 would mean an annual growth rate of 61 percent. That would be impressive growth, but well below the 87 percent growth rate averaged by California and North Carolina over the past 6 years.

So 10% in five years should be doable. And indeed, viewed against the need to dramatically lower our carbon footprint, it seems like a very small step indeed. The McAuliffe administration wants to significantly cut statewide carbon emissions, and it is hard to see how we can do that without replacing the dirtiest fossil fuels with solar (and wind, and energy efficiency).

The good news is that the market is in our favor. Dominion Energy’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) identified utility-scale solar as the least-cost energy resource available in Virginia today. And participants in local cooperative buying programs for homeowners and businesses, known as “Solarize” programs, report payback times of under 10 years for rooftop solar, after which they will have nearly free electricity for 20 or 30 years.

Recent solar deals involving Amazon, Microsoft, and now Facebook show just how strong the demand is from customers. The very companies that our political leaders want so desperately to attract to Virginia are insisting on renewable electricity.

These deals demonstrate the direction of the market, and they will give an initial boost to solar employment, especially in the rural communities that are the best locations for solar farms. But restricting solar to a handful of new companies just coming into Virginia won’t get us to 15,000 MW and 10% solar. It’s also fundamentally unfair to the rest of us who are stuck with a dirty grid. Why should existing customers get left with polluting sources, while big tech companies get solar?

For us, Dominion’s IRP caps its solar plans at 240 MW per year, an amount it admits is arbitrary. In other words, Amazon got 260 MW, Facebook is getting 130 MW, but all the rest of Dominion’s customers put together will get just 240 MW per year.

As for customers who are determined to take matters into their own hands with rooftop solar, a host of unnecessary restrictions continue to limit growth. Virginia needs to put policies in place to push utilities to do more, to support local governments and schools that want solar, and to remove the barriers that limit private investment.

Solar companies around the state say if we can do that, they will do their part by hiring more Virginians. Here’s what some of them had to say about the 10% solar goal, and how to achieve it:

“We believe, as Virginians, that we can solve our energy challenges. Ours is a Virginia company founded and based in Charlottesville, and we are committed to building Virginia-based energy production facilities that benefit all Virginians. But the fact is that over the past few years our growth has come from business in other states. We have 26 employees in Virginia now, and we could increase that dramatically if Virginia promotes solar through policy changes that incentivize business owners to invest, allows competition, and supports the environmental message.” –Paul Risberg, President of Altenergy, Charlottesville

“The economics have never been better for solar in Virginia than they are right now. Prospect Solar has grown from two employees in 2010 to 16 full time employees today. Roles such as electricians, skilled labor, engineers, project managers, and sales people are integral to the success of each project. We hope Virginia will commit to a rapid, sustained buildout of all sectors of the solar industry, allowing us to continue adding local jobs.” –Andrew Skinner, Project Manager at Prospect Solar, Sterling

“Nationwide, the solar market was a 23 billion dollar industry in 2016. One out of every 50 new jobs in America was created by the solar industry last year. Sigora has been part of that. We have doubled in size in the past year and now employ 80 people in the Commonwealth.” –Karla Loeb, Vice President of Policy and Development for Sigora Solar, Charlottesville

“Local energy, local jobs, local investment. Our workforce is made up of local people—three of us went to Virginia Tech, one went to New River Community College, which has an Alternative Energy Program. An increase in demand of this scale would mean we’d hire more local people.” –Patrick Feucht, Manager of Baseline Solar, Blacksburg

“Residential and commercial rooftop solar has created most of the solar jobs in Virginia to date, and it has to be a part of the push to 10 percent. As we know, rooftop solar creates more jobs than utility solar, and these are good-paying, local jobs for local people. That’s one reason Virginia should lift the outdated 1 percent cap on net-metered solar, and leave the market open to anyone who wants to invest in their own home-grown energy supply.” –Sue Kanz, President of Solar Services, Virginia Beach

“Ten percent solar is a modest goal to shoot for given the strong economics of solar and the demand we are seeing from customers. Virginia has been held back by restrictive policies that have made it a ‘dark state.’ Reforming our policies would lead to a lot more economic development around solar.” –Tony Smith, President of Secure Futures LLC, Staunton

 

APCo wants higher bills for homeowners who go solar

Workers installing solar on a roof. Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Workers installing solar on a roof. Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Appalachian Power Company (APCo) is seeking permission from utility regulators to impose new “standby” charges on residential customers who install solar systems over 10 kilowatts (kW). The fee is included in the company’s latest rate proposal, now before the State Corporation Commission.

According to the filing, the transmission and distribution charges would add $3.77 per kW to the monthly bill of a customer who goes solar with a large residential system. That means homeowners with 10 kW systems would pay an added $37.70 per month. Charges would escalate to $75.40 per month for homes with 20 kW systems, the largest size allowed under net-metering rules.

So the potential is there for a solar homeowner to owe over $900 per year in new charges on his electric bill. But according to APCo, only three customers in all of its Virginia territory have systems large enough to qualify for a standby charge, with no additional big systems in the queue.

That’s right: APCo is spending many, many thousands of dollars on lawyers and consultants so it can change rules that affect three people.

Ahem. Lest anyone think APCo is worried about cost. APCo’s decision to move now proves this is not about freeloaders on the grid. This is about protecting the corporate monopoly on electric power by shutting down the independent solar industry while it is still small.

In this, APCo is following the lead of Dominion Power, which got the SCC to approve similarly onerous standby charges on its own large residential solar customers in 2011. The utility’s ability to do so was authorized that year by a bill amending section 56-594 of the Virginia Code. The statute leaves it up to utilities and the SCC to determine the amount.

The Virginia solar industry acquiesced to the standby charge language as part of a deal that raised the residential net metering limit from 10 kW to 20 kW. Industry members assumed any charges the SCC approved under the law would be modest, given the many benefits solar brings to the grid.

Their assumption proved spectacularly wrong. The SCC bought Dominion’s arguments about solar homeowners not paying their “fair share,” dismissing expert testimony and findings from other states that solar enhances grid security and offsets peak demand.

The result has been a clear setback for the solar industry’s ability to sell larger home systems. Dominion’s steep standby charges “are forcing the solar industry to take a step backward when we’ve worked so hard to make positive steps forward,” says Andrew Skinner, Project Manager with Prospect Solar in Sterling, Virginia. “Working with several small farms and residences in rural VA, we have had to design right up to the threshold of the standby charge to make the economic case most compelling.”

Dominion and APCo are following the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive corporate lobbying organization that seeks to roll back pro-renewable energy laws across the country. The parent companies of both Dominion and APCo are members of ALEC, and Dominion’s president, Bob Blue, served on ALEC’s energy and environment task force with representatives from the American Petroleum Institute, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the science-obfuscation shop Heartland Institute, and other champions of all things fossil. (Greenpeace recently announced that six utilities have resigned from ALEC; unfortunately our guys were not among them.)

Given that APCo’s proposed standby charges are so similar to Dominion’s, APCo probably figures its request is a slam-dunk at the SCC. And given how few people are affected, it may be tempting to ignore it. But just last summer Dominion signaled its intent to try to extend its own standby charges to more solar customers, which makes the issue relevant to everyone who owns a solar system, wants one, or supports the rights of others to buy them.

Whether utilities should be loading up their solar customers with added fees is also at the heart of two studies getting underway in Virginia this year examining the costs and benefits of solar, one of them under the auspices of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the Department of Environmental Quality, and the other by the SCC itself. With a consumer backlash growing nationwide against utility efforts to “tax the sun,” APCo’s move looks like a way to lock in a rate increase on solar owners before the data is in—and before its customers catch on.

It’s especially unfortunate that the utilities’ push against net metered solar comes at a time when we are beginning to see a flourishing of the solar market. Total installed solar in Virginia has leapt from under 5 megawatts just a couple of years ago to perhaps 18 megawatts today. Okay, that’s a paltry figure compared to, say, North Carolina’s 557 megawatts or New Jersey’s more than 1200 megawatts, but starting from next to nothing gives us a really fantastic growth curve.

The rapid drop in solar prices has been a major factor driving Virginia sales. Says Skinner, “With the advancements in the solar market over the past couple years, even here in Virginia, we have been inching closer to the 10 year or less payback period. We talk to people every day that tell us they’ll go solar here when the payback is less than 10 years. A standby charge reverses that trend based on an argument with flawed economics. While other states are making progress on the true value of solar, we’re here with our head held under water.”

He concludes, “Even while holding our breath we are still creating jobs and installing solar arrays all over our beautiful state. I was born and raised here, and I’m proud to work for a VA based company; we just need to get rid of these backward policies so we can keep moving forward.”

APCo’s rate case is PUE-2014-00026, which can be found on the SCC website. For a discussion of the standby charge proposal, look for the exhibit containing the testimony of Jennifer Sebastian. The deadline for submitting comments on APCo’s application is September 9, 2014, and a public hearing will be held on September 16 at the SCC offices in Richmond.