Virginia schools taking giant steps into solar, and saving money for taxpayers

Visitors tour the solar installation on the roof of Wakefield HS in Arlington. Photo credit Phil Duncan

Visitors tour the solar installation on the roof of Wakefield HS in Arlington. Photo credit Phil Duncan

Amory Fischer was a high school sophomore in Albermarle County in central Virginia four years ago when he got interested in the idea of using solar panels to provide some of the power used by the local schools. He found a lot of people shared his enthusiasm, but economic and policy hurdles stood in the way.

In 2012, a local middle school used federal stimulus money to install solar PV and solar hot water. Unfortunately, schools without grant funding couldn’t afford to follow suit. Although the cost of solar panels had fallen to record low levels, buying and installing them still required a significant upfront capital investment. And as tax-exempt entities, public schools couldn’t take advantage of the 30% federal tax credit available to residents and businesses.

Then, in 2013, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law allowing nonprofits and local governments, among others, to buy solar power using a tax-advantaged financing method known as a third party power purchase agreement (PPA).* PPAs can be structured to require no upfront capital from the customer, just payment for the electricity the solar panels produce. Suddenly, for the first time, the economics favored solar for Virginia schools.

Amory and fellow students collaborated with Lindsay Snoddy, the school division’s Environmental Compliance Manager, and spent the next year educating teachers, staff, parents and the community about the benefits of solar and the opportunities presented by the new law. Partnering with environmental groups 350 Central Virginia and the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, they formed the Solar Schools Initiative and circulated a petition that garnered nearly a thousand signatures in support of putting solar on Albermarle schools.

It worked. Once school board members understood that a PPA would let the schools install solar panels at no additional cost premium over regular “brown” power—and indeed, would even save them money—their support was unanimous. The school board issued a Request for Proposals and chose Staunton-based solar developer Secure Futures, LLC to develop the projects.

Students and community members gather at Sutherland Middle School in Albemarle County on May 28 to celebrate the student engagement that led to the signing of a contract to put solar on Sutherland and five other schools.

Students and community members gather at Sutherland Middle School in Albemarle County on May 28 to celebrate the student engagement that led to the signing of a contract to put solar on Sutherland and five other schools.

Six area schools will have solar panels installed by the end of this year: two high schools, a middle school, and three elementary schools. Together, the installations will total 3,000 solar panels for a combined 1 megawatt (1,000 kW) of capacity, producing about 14% of the electricity used by the schools.

Amory Fischer is now a junior at Virginia Tech, where he studies Environmental Policy and Planning. This summer he will be working for Secure Futures and trying to encourage more schools across the Commonwealth to go solar.

He will find a promising market, so far largely untapped. A small number of schools elsewhere in Virginia already boast solar panels, but most of them are small systems designed more for their educational value than to make a significant contribution to the school’s power demand. One significant exception is the Center for Energy Efficient Design, an educationally-focused building in Franklin County that “enables students and community members to explore various energy devices and techniques to make intelligent decisions about energy and housing.” It was completed in 2010 and designed to PassivHaus and LEED Platinum standards. In addition to solar panels, two wind turbines help meet the electric demand, and the building includes other energy and water-saving features like a geothermal system, solar hot water and a green roof. The project reflects an impressive commitment from the Franklin County School Board going back to 2004.

More recently, Arlington County has made a commitment to sustainable design in its schools as well as other county-owned buildings. Its LEED Gold-certified Wakefield High School, completed in 2013, includes a 90-kW solar PV installation. The county’s next school building will be even more ambitious. Discovery Elementary School, under construction on the grounds of Williamsburg Middle School, will include 496 kW of solar to allow the super-efficient building to produce as much electricity as it consumes. Buildings that achieve that feat are referred to as “net zero energy.”

Net zero is also the goal of advocates in Harrisonburg, who are pushing the city to include solar and other green features on a school building that is currently in the design phase. Bishop Dansby, a member of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Green Network, says residents collected more than 800 signatures in support of a net zero energy school, but the school board has not told them yet whether it will adopt the recommendation. One encouraging sign: the board has hired Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects, the firm behind Arlington’s Discovery school.

Other Virginia localities are decidedly lagging, including ones you’d expect to see in the lead. Affluent, tech-savvy Fairfax County is missing in action on solar schools; advocates point to an insular and uninterested school bureaucracy as the primary barrier. A group of students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology hopes to change that with a petition drive aimed at getting the county to act.

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*Unfortunately, the 2013 PPA law applies only to customers of Dominion Virginia Power as part of a two year “pilot program.” The legality of PPAs elsewhere in Virginia is unclear. However, Secure Futures offers a PPA alternative called a Customer Self-Generation Agreement that offers similar benefits. The company believes is legal in all parts of Virginia.

Dominion gets what it wants, but Virginia doesn’t get what we need

DominionLogoNo, you can’t always get what you want.   You can’t always get what you want.   You can’t always get what you want.     But if you try sometime you find,           You get what Dominion Power wants.

With apologies to the Rolling Stones

I guess there’s a reason I never made it as a songwriter. That last line is a disaster. But that, in a nutshell, is what happened to SB 1349, known as the rate-freeze bill, the ratepayer rip-off, or the Dominion bill, depending on whether you were pro, con, or still trying to figure it out.

The bill began and ended as a way for Dominion Virginia Power to shield excess profits from the possibility of regulators ordering refunds to customers. Along the way, Appalachian Power jumped on board, even though its president had already admitted the company had been earning more than it should.

When we last looked, SB 1349 was undergoing radical rewriting on the floor of the Senate, in real time. Conflicting amendments were being passed around. Outside the chamber, lawmakers from both parties were huddled in hallways with Dominion lobbyists. The coal caucus had already tacked on language making it harder to close coal-fired power plants. Now the Governor, progressive leaders and clean energy supporters were pushing amendments guaranteeing more solar and energy efficiency programs.

To get a sense of how impossible it was for the rank and file to follow, check out the bill history with its amendments offered and rejected, and the readings of the amendments waived.

With cameras rolling and the clock ticking, senators made speeches about provisions other people told them were now in the bill, but without anyone having the time to read the language they were expected to vote on. That being normal, they voted on the strength of promises made and assurances given.

With Dominion Power insisting on passage, the result was never in real doubt. Few legislators want to cross the most powerful force in Virginia politics, and the source of so much campaign cash, perks, and donations to local charities. But they needed to hear those promises made and assurances given; otherwise, what would they tell their constituents, when newspapers across the state had been blasting this bill?

The promises made and assurances given also quieted the environmentalists who had led the opposition. Consumers, we were told, would now see investments in solar and energy efficiency that would bring long-term savings, energy diversity and greater price stability, as well as lower pollution and new jobs. The bill would contain firm commitments and produce meaningful investments in energy efficiency and solar power.

The Senate passed the bill, and then finally everyone read what had been voted on. Yes, Dominion had got what it wanted, but then it got . . . even more of what it wanted!

The bill contains a solar provision that smooths the way for utilities to develop or buy up to 500 megawatts of solar power, using Virginia suppliers. But it doesn’t require any minimum solar investment or contain a deadline for getting that solar power on the grid.

As for efficiency, SB 1349 does now contain a provision requiring utilities to create ”pilot programs” for energy assistance and weatherization for low-income, elderly and disabled customers, but it doesn’t say how big a program has to be or how much money must be spent. A “pilot program,” by definition, is small and experimental. It is a baby step, when we were expecting adult strides.

While clean energy advocates were still trying to figure out what happened to the promise of firm commitments and deadlines on solar power, SB 1349 blew through the House.

In short, the final bill language now on the Governor’s desk gives Dominion the authority, but not the obligation, to make clean energy investments.

Virginia law gives our governor an option that most states don’t offer: rather than sign it or veto a bill outright, he can amend it and send it back to the legislature for a final vote. That makes Governor McAuliffe the one person who can still salvage something from this miserable bill. He can put in the solar numbers and dates that went missing—or raise them further—and put hard targets into the efficiency programs. Doing so would finally put McAuliffe on the path to creating all those clean energy jobs he campaigned on.

Dominion will still get what it wants, but if McAuliffe will try, we might get what we need.

Virginia’s amazing year in energy: gas rises, coal falls, and solar shines (but it’s still not okay to say “climate change”)

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Nobody laughed a few years ago when former governor Bob McDonnell dubbed Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”; we were all too astounded by the hyperbole. And today, even “Energy Suburb” still seems like a stretch. Yet, if you measure achievement by the sheer level of activity, Virginia is making a play for importance. The year’s top energy stories show us fully engaged in the worldwide battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Of course, while the smart money says renewables will dominate by mid-century, Virginia seems determined to drown rather than give up its fossil fuel addiction.

Coal falls hard; observers disagree on whether it bounces or goes splat. Nationwide, 2014 was a bad year for the coal industry. Coal stocks fell precipitously; mining jobs continued to decline; and the one thing electric utilities and the public found to agree on is that no one likes coal. Even in Virginia, with its long history of mining, coal had to play defense for what may have been the first time ever. So when Governor McAuliffe released the state’s latest energy plan in October, what was otherwise a paean to “All of the Above” omitted the stanza on coal. And this month, the governor proposed a rollback of the subsidies coal companies pocket by mining Virginia coal.

Of course, coal is not going quietly; Senator Charles Carrico (himself heavily subsidized by Alpha Natural Resources) has already responded with a bill to extend the subsidies to 2022.

EPA opens a door to a cleaner future, and Republicans try to brick it up. Speaking of hard times for coal, in June the EPA unveiled its proposal to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% nationwide by 2030. Instead of targeting plants one-by-one, EPA proposed a systemic approach, offering a suite of options for states to reach their individualized targets.

The proposal drew widespread support from the public, but Virginia’s 38% reduction target set off howls of protest from defenders of the status quo. The staff of the State Corporation Commission claimed the rule was illegal and would cost ratepayers $6 billion. Republicans convened a special meeting of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees, where they tried out a number of arguments, not all of which proved ready for prime time. The rule, they said, threatens Virginia with a loss of business to more favored states like—and I am not making this up—West Virginia. Also, Virginia should have received more credit for lowering its carbon emissions by building nuclear plants back in the 1970s when no one was thinking about carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center analyzed the rule and concluded that actually, compliance will not be hard. Virginia is already 80% of the way there, and achieving the rest will produce a burst of clean-energy jobs coupled with savings for consumers through energy efficiency.

Undaunted, Republicans have already introduced a thumb-your-nose-at-EPA bill developed by the fossil fuel champions at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The “solarize” movement takes Virginia by storm. For the last few years, solar energy has been exploding in popularity across the U.S., but Virginia always seemed to be missing the party. So it surprised even advocates this year when pent-up consumer demand manifested itself in the blossoming of local solar buying cooperatives and other bulk-purchase arrangements. “Solarize Blacksburg” made its debut in March, going on to sign up hundreds of homeowners for solar installations. It was followed in quick succession by the launch of similar programs in Richmond, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Northern Virginia, Halifax, Floyd, and Hampton Roads.

The main reason for the solarize programs’ success was the steep decline in the cost of solar energy. 2014 saw the cost of residential installations in Virginia fall to record low prices, making the investment worthwhile to a broad swath of homeowners for the first time.

Utilities say maybe to solar, but only for themselves. Virginia still boasts no utility-scale solar, but utilities elsewhere signed long-term power purchase contracts for solar energy at prices that were sometimes below that of natural gas: under 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour in Georgia, and under 5 cents in Texas. Compare that to the estimated 9.3 cents/kWh cost of power from Dominion Virginia Power’s newest and most up-to-date coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant, and you’ll understand why Dominion has suddenly taken an interest in solar projects. Sadly, it’s own foray into rooftop solar so far stands as an example of what not to do, and a testament to why the private market should be allowed to compete.

Yet Virginia utilities continued their hostility to customer-owned solar. Dominion put the kibosh on a bill that would have expanded access to solar energy through community net-metering, while Appalachian Power matched Dominion’s earlier success in imposing punitive standby charges on owners of larger residential systems.

Fracking, pipelines, and gas plants, oh my! Renewable energy may be the future, but the present belongs to cheap natural gas. Yes, the fracking process is dirty, noisy and polluting, and yes, methane leakage around gas wells is exacerbating climate change. But did we mention gas is cheap?

2014 saw proposals to drill gas wells east of I-95, while the Virginia government began updating its regulations to govern fracking. Dominion Power started construction on a second new gas power plant, and talked up its plans for a third. The utility giant, a major player in the gas transmission business, also got approval to turn its liquefied natural gas import terminal in Cove Point, Maryland, into an export terminal. With visions of customers dancing in its head, it also announced plans for a major new pipeline to bring fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina—one of three proposed pipelines that would cut through the Virginia countryside and across natural treasures like the Appalachian Trail. The pipeline created an instant protest movement but gained the wholehearted approval of Governor McAuliffe.

Flooding in Hampton Roads becomes the new normal; it’s still not okay to ask what’s causing it. A cooler-than-normal year for the eastern United States gulled many landlubbers into believing that global warming was taking a breather, but meanwhile the ocean continued its inexorable rise along Virginia’s vulnerable coastline. It’s one thing to shrug off the occasional storm, said residents; it’s harder to ignore seawater that cuts off your parking lot at every high tide. 2014 will go down as the year everyone finally agreed we have a problem—even in the General Assembly, which passed legislation to develop a response to the “recurrent flooding.” But while the bill recognized that the problem will just get worse, it avoided noting why.

The public gets it, though. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that climate change was the number one topic of interest to writers of letters to the editor in 2014. And loud cheers greeted Governor McAuliffe’s announcement that he would reestablish the state’s commission on climate change, which Bob McDonnell had disbanded. As one environmental leader quipped, “People in Tidewater are tired of driving through tidal water.”

Public corruption: in Virginia, it’s not just for politicians. Everyone can agree that it was a really bad year for the Virginia Way, that gentlemanly notion that persons of good character don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws. But we also saw plenty to prove the adage that the real scandal is what’s legal. As we learned, Virginia law allows unlimited corporate contributions to campaigns, and puts no limits on what campaigns can spend money on. So if some legislators act more like corporate employees than servants of the public, well, that’s how the system was set up to work.

But the system only works when corporations get their money’s worth from the politicians, and that quid pro quo usually comes at the public’s expense. For example, take Dominion Power’s North Anna 3 shenanigans (please). In an exceptionally bold exploitation of the Virginia Way, Dominion Power secured passage of legislation allowing it to bill customers for hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent towards a new nuclear plant that it is unlikely to build. (And the irony is that ratepayers will still be better off throwing the money down that rathole than they will be if Dominion does manage to build it.)

So as we look ahead to 2015’s energy battles, anyone wondering who the winners and losers will be needs only one piece of guidance: in Virginia, just follow the money.

Why Virginia Lags on Solar

Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. Solar PV installations grew 109% in 2011, and the industry now employs over 100,000 Americans. Yet it is almost invisible in Virginia. The installed total in the commonwealth is about 5 megawatts (MW), a pittance compared to the 1,200 MW in California and over 800 in New Jersey. Maryland and North Carolina each have more than ten times as much solar PV as we do.

Part of the reason is our lack of incentives. Unlike many other states in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, Virginia offers no tax credits or rebates on solar systems to supplement the federal tax credit. And our voluntary renewable portfolio standard is so flabby that our utilities will never need solar to meet it.

Virginia also isn’t known for getting out ahead of the curve on energy. Instead of embracing the promise of clean power, the state clings to an old energy model dominated by fossil fuels. Just this year, the General Assembly renewed a subsidy that takes about $45 million every year out of the pockets of taxpayers to support coal mining.

But as a recent article in the New York Times Magazine described (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/magazine/the-secret-to-solar-power.htm?src=dayp), the future has come knocking. With the price of solar energy tumbling, solar now makes economic sense across much of the country. New financing models make it possible to install solar with no upfront capital cost to the customer, who may see immediate savings over grid-delivered “brown” energy.

Among these new models, leases have become especially popular for homeowners and businesses, but only power purchase agreements (PPAs) allow non-profits to take advantage of tax credits. Under a PPA, the solar installer retains ownership of the solar system and uses the tax credits to offset profits, passing along the savings as it sells the power to the nonprofit.

PPAs could permit the solar market in Virginia to blossom in a big way. Colleges and universities, private schools, churches, charities and local governments are now looking at solar systems as a way to meet carbon-reduction targets and reduce energy costs over the long haul.

Unfortunately, this new enthusiasm has run headlong into the immovable force known as Dominion Power. Dominion blocked a PPA at Washington & Lee University last fall, and its threat of legal action has kept other non-profits from moving forward with plans for solar installations.

Dominion is a regulated monopoly in Virginia, a status that gives it the sole right to sell power in its territory, with a few exceptions. One of the exceptions gives sellers of 100% renewable electricity the right to sell to Dominion’s customers if the company itself doesn’t offer that option—which, indisputably, it does not. (Its Green Power Program relies on certificates, not actual green electricity.)

So Dominion’s interpretation of the statute appears to be wrong on its face, but one of the nice things about being a giant monopoly is that you have more lawyers and more money than the people you threaten.

Unable to fund a lawsuit, the solar industry tried last year to get relief from the General Assembly in the form of HB 129, a bill that would have made explicit the right of renewable energy companies to sell power to their customers through PPAs. Delegate Jerry Kilgore (R-Gate City) shepherded the bill through the House, where it passed without a single dissenting vote. Once in the Senate, though, it was “carried over” (effectively, killed) by a Senate committee stacked with Dominion allies like Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Chairman John Watkins (R-Midlothian).

Quick quiz, but not a toughie: according to the Virginia Public Access Project, www.vpap.org, who is the top donor to the campaign chests of Dick Saslaw and John Watkins?

The failure of HB 129 leaves a lot of would-be solar and wind customers in limbo, keeps Virginia companies from growing and adding jobs, and prevents churches, colleges and universities from benefiting from the federal tax credits that are available to residents of other states where PPAs are common.

It has also given Dominion a black eye with the public and local officials. Critics say the heavy-handed effort to squash small solar companies shows the utility giant has grown overly complacent about its status as the most powerful force in Richmond.

Dominion should back down from its unreasonable opposition to PPAs. It has little to lose by allowing private companies the space to compete and innovate in a market Dominion itself doesn’t serve. And if it won’t back off, then the public needs to remind its legislators who they serve. Hint: it’s not supposed to be Dominion.