Shared solar launches in Virginia but still faces an uphill battle

Wildflowers in front of solar panels illustrate pollinator plantings around solar panels
Photo credit Center for Pollinators in Energy, fresh-energy.org

After years of wrangling, Virginia finally allows certain customers of Dominion Energy Virginia to buy solar energy from independent providers of shared solar, also known as community solar.

Don’t applaud yet, though. Dominion has used the rulemaking process and its control over project interconnection to create hurdles for shared solar that lawmakers never anticipated. High minimum bills, prolonged interconnection study requirements and expensive equipment demands are stalling projects and could drive away all but the most tenacious developers.

The blow that received the most attention came during the rulemaking process. The State Corporation Commission decided Dominion could impose a minimum bill averaging $55 per month on most customers. The minimum bill is added to the cost of the electricity itself, making shared solar so expensive that the program simply won’t be offered to the general public.

However, lawmakers had included a provision exempting low- to moderate-income (LMI) participants from the minimum bill requirement. In effect, then, the SCC’s order turned the shared solar program into a program just for LMI residents.

Indeed, the first shared solar project for LMI Virginians launched on Nov. 9 in Dumfries as a partnership between community solar developer Dimension Renewable Energy and low-income housing provider Community Housing Partners. Subscribers are told to expect savings of 10% on their electricity bills. The partners are signing up participants now but have not broken ground on a solar facility to serve them.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, the author of the law creating the shared solar program, attended the launch of Dimension’s project to share in the celebration. But he still believes the program should be available to everyone. He confirmed to me he is working with the community solar industry to develop legislation addressing the minimum bill problem.

Surovell says he continues to think a minimum bill is necessary; the question is what fee is “commercially feasible to community solar programs” while still capturing “a fair amount of system costs and legacy expenses” borne by Dominion in providing service to participants when the solar facility isn’t generating electricity.

Interconnection woes: delays, high costs and ‘dark fiber’

Even if Surovell can thread that needle, the minimum bill is only the most visible problem facing shared solar in Dominion’s territory. The solar facilities have to connect to the grid, which puts Dominion in charge of the interconnection process. Developers say they are encountering long delays, high costs and unreasonable equipment requirements.

Earlier this year, the State Corporation Commission opened a docket to solicit feedback on the interconnection process — and the result was an outpouring of complaints.

As described in comments from the solar industry, Dominion requires cost-prohibitive “dark fiber” for grid protection in place of a much less expensive industry-standard approach. Dominion also lags in conducting the studies that every new project proposal must undergo at the developer’s cost, resulting in timelines that stretch 16 months or more. Additional facilities that would use the same substation aren’t considered until the study process for the first one is complete, creating further delays.

Developers also aren’t told until the final stage how much Dominion expects to charge them to interconnect their array — and even then, Dominion adds a disclaimer that its estimate is not binding. That uncertainty, says the industry, makes projects hard to finance and risky for developers.

These inefficiencies and unnecessary expenses drive up project costs and make distributed solar more expensive for customers, when it is possible at all. Tony Smith, president of solar developer Secure Futures, told me his company wanted to build a 1 megawatt shared solar facility to serve LMI customers in Augusta County. They secured the site and permits before learning that Dominion would require dark fiber and planned to charge them $1 million for the interconnection, an amount so high as to scuttle the project.

(For context, solar industry estimates put the entire cost of developing community-scale solar at an average of $1.4 million per megawatt.)

Smith says larger projects may be able to absorb exorbitant interconnection fees, but smaller projects cannot. In any case, high interconnection costs inevitably mean higher costs for customers.

Industry comments note areas where Dominion has tried to resolve issues, in particular to speed up the study timelines. But regarding other requirements, particularly those that impose the highest costs, the utility shows little willingness to budge. In some instances, the company even seems to be using its interconnection power to make private developers shoulder its own grid upgrade costs. It’s hard not to suspect that Dominion is perfectly happy making other people’s solar projects more expensive.

The solar industry’s brief describes steps taken in other states to make the process fairer, faster and less expensive. But if the staff report of the Division of Public Utility Regulation is any indication, the SCC is more likely to take a slower approach involving working groups, pilot studies and a multistep process. Smith says all this will take many years, by which time shared solar developers will have given up on Virginia and taken their business to friendlier states. He’d like to see the General Assembly address the worst problems.

Surovell says he has “heard about” the interconnection issues but “ha(s)n’t focused on it yet.” Charlie Coggeshall, mid-Atlantic director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, told me that “interconnection is a hurdle for shared solar in Virginia and absolutely in need of improvements,” but said his organization is focused on the SCC process and for now has no plans to pursue a legislative fix.

Dominion serves about two-thirds of Virginia customers, so solving the minimum bill and interconnection problems would open shared solar to a broad swath of residents across the state. That still leaves out the other third. Advocates hope to expand the availability of shared solar into Appalachian Power territory and that of Virginia’s electric cooperatives.

A few co-ops launched their own community solar programs pre-pandemic, but most don’t offer one and apparently don’t want to. As for Appalachian Power, it has consistently opposed community solar, saying it can’t afford to lose customers. (On the other hand, Appalachian Power does not require installation of dark fiber as a condition of interconnection, in that respect making it friendlier to distributed generation — just not shared solar projects.)

Multifamily shared solar scores a win, regardless of income level

Apartment building with solar panels on the roof.
An apartment building in the Bronx. Under the multifamily shared solar program, apartment buildings in Virginia could host solar arrays for the benefit of tenants. Photo by Bright Power Inc. via Wikimedia.

While shared solar faces an uphill battle, some good news came in a second case implementing a related program, this one authorized by 2020’s Solar Freedom legislation and designed for onsite solar at apartment buildings and condominiums. The multifamily shared solar (MFSS) program makes it possible for a landlord or condo association to install a solar facility to serve just its own residents. This program occupies a middle ground between community solar and net metering, and the enabling legislation allows Dominion to impose an administrative fee but not a minimum bill or any other charges.

Early on, the SCC had indicated a willingness to allow Dominion to shoehorn the components of the shared solar law’s minimum bill into the MFSS administrative fee. That would have certainly been the end of the program right there. In its final order, however, a common-sense definition of “administrative fee” prevailed, and the SCC ruled that Dominion could not stuff its costs of doing business into the fee.

The SCC still set the MFSS administrative fee at a curiously high $13.40 per month, accepting Dominion’s argument that it would have to do all this billing manually. The SCC also decided customers should pay certain “non-bypassable charges” amounting to an average of about $3 per month. The law doesn’t authorize these charges, but the SCC reasoned that it doesn’t prohibit them, either.

Even with Dominion taking $16 or so, the economics would not seem prohibitive. Developers caution, however, that the limited subscriber base for any MFSS project makes this program difficult to work with, even if the building is large and the property can accommodate a fair-sized solar facility. And even onsite solar arrays aren’t necessarily immune to interconnection woes.

Still, there is plenty of customer interest in the multifamily program, especially from condominium associations that may be able to finance the projects themselves. With any luck, they will pave the way for others to follow.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on November 29, 2022.

Buckle up, folks: this federal climate bill is going to supercharge Virginia’s energy transition

Young woman holding sign that says Climate Action Now
Photo by Alex Kambis.

On Sunday the U.S. Senate passed the historic climate legislation package hammered out between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. The House is expected to follow suit this week, giving President Joe Biden a huge win on one of his administration’s priorities and finally making good on his pledge to tackle climate change.

The bill is titled the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), apparently because the senators think inflation is the only thing most Americans care about right now. But whether it reduces inflation is beside the point. The IRA marks the federal government’s most significant investment in clean energy and transportation ever. Its $370 billion of climate spending will cut U.S. emissions roughly 42% below 2005 levels by 2030, only slightly less than the reductions that would have been achieved through Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill.

This is a huge piece of legislation, though, and some of the compromises Schumer was forced to make are not climate-friendly. Manchin, after all, is a coal baron representing a state so dominated by the extraction industries that it has lost sight of any other future. Climate hawks have to hold their noses (beaks?) to accept some noxious provisions, such as the bill’s requirement for new offshore drilling lease sales. No doubt that one will cheer motorists who wrongly assume the government could lower gasoline prices just by turning on a spigot, if only it wanted to.

The bill also comes with a side deal meant to ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which starts in Manchin’s home state. That news promptly soured many activists in Virginia on the whole package.

Hang in there, people. The pipeline deal isn’t actually part of the IRA, and Manchin knows better than anyone that a promise of some second bill to be voted on in the future is a castle in the air. Maybe he’ll get it, maybe he won’t. Meanwhile, the IRA’s incentives for renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, building electrification and electric vehicles are overwhelmingly more impactful than provisions designed to increase oil and gas production. The business case for new pipelines will only get worse.

Three recurring themes stand out in the IRA. One is the attention paid to ensuring benefits flow to low- and moderate-income residents and communities impacted by fossil fuel extraction. A second is the effort to incentivize manufacturing and supply chain companies to bring operations back to the U.S., using tax credits for manufacturing and requirements for U.S.-made components. The third is job creation and training for career jobs that pay well. The combined effect is that the law will benefit former coal workers in Southwest Virginia looking for employment at least as much as Northern Virginia suburbanites jonesing for Teslas.

Every state will see clean energy investments soar if the bill becomes law, but Virginia is especially well positioned. Though we have embarrassingly little wind and solar in our energy mix today, we have huge potential for both, a strong tech sector and a well-educated workforce.

Just as important, laws passed by the General Assembly in the past few years already provide the framework for our energy transition. Among them, the Virginia Clean Economy Act and participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are pushing our utilities to decarbonize, including through investments in energy efficiency, solar and offshore wind. Solar Freedom removed barriers to private investments in distributed solar, while the Grid Modernization Act authorized upgrades to the distribution grid, and the Clean Cars Act started us down the road to vehicle electrification. For all of these, the IRA’s incentives make compliance easier and less expensive for both utilities and customers.

Renewable energy tax credits with an emphasis on equity and jobs

Photo courtesy of NREL

The IRA is a big bill with a lot of fine print detailing incentives for a wide range of technologies, mostly clean but with a few clunkers. (Hydrogen made from fracked gas, anyone?) Still, the largest share of the renewable energy tax credits will go to companies involved in the wind and solar industries. The credits will remain fixed for 10 years before ramping down, finally providing the business certainty and long planning window that clean tech companies have been begging for.

The more utilities take advantage of the law to install renewable energy, the greater the benefit to electricity customers. Renewable energy helps stabilize electricity costs, dampening the impact of high fossil fuel prices. The IRA’s tax credits will lower the cost of building wind and solar, saving money for Virginia customers as our utilities meet and exceed the VCEA’s targets for solar, storage and wind. (So, yes, the Inflation Reduction Act will live up to its name when it comes to electricity prices.)

For utility-scale projects like solar farms and offshore wind, obtaining the maximum tax credit requires that a steadily increasing percentage of the equipment used be American made. Credits available to manufacturers are intended to draw the supply chain back to the U.S. and will help those parts be cost-competitive. New prevailing wage and apprenticeship program requirements favor union labor and middle-class incomes for careers in green energy.

While large renewable energy facilities will contribute most to decarbonizing the grid, the most generous incentives in the IRA are reserved for distributed generation facilities under 1,000 kilowatts AC (1,300 kW DC), a category that includes most rooftop solar. For these projects, the investment tax credit will return to 30% for the next 10 years, with adders available if the facility is located on a brownfield or in an “energy community” (10%), uses domestic content (10%) or serves low-income residents (10-20%). The credits can be combined, making it entirely possible for a solar project on low-income housing in Virginia’s coalfields, built using American-made equipment, to qualify for tax credits of up to 70% of the cost.

Not only that, but taxpayers will be allowed to sell the credits, so people with no tax liability can still take advantage of the discounts. This feature will make solar affordable for homeowners who don’t owe enough in federal taxes to use the tax credits themselves. It will also make it possible for installers to discount the upfront cost of a solar array by the amount of the tax credit so customers don’t have to wait months for a tax refund.

A final feature is that the tax credits will now also be available as direct payments to tax-exempt entities like local governments, schools and churches. Direct pay will have the biggest impact in states that don’t allow third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), but it’s a great option anywhere.

The “adder” for brownfields will be of interest to many Virginia localities that want to find ways to safely use closed landfills and old industrial sites, while Virginia’s government has already identified brownfields as a great opportunity for solar.

But the biggest market opportunities would seem to be for solar on low-income housing and in areas impacted by fossil fuel extraction. Carrie Hearne, associate director for renewable energy and energy efficiency at Virginia’s Department of Energy, said the many federal funding programs laid out in the IRA “would provide great opportunities for energy infrastructure investments in communities that are most in need, and in turn, help to lower energy bills. These federal funds could also contribute to the commonwealth’s goal of competitive rates, reliable and responsible delivery of energy alongside rural economic development.”

To understand how the solar industry sees these opportunities, I called the leaders of three solar companies that develop onsite solar in low-income areas and in the coalfields: Dan Conant of West Virginia-based Solar Holler, Tony Smith of Staunton-based Secure Futures and Ruth Amundsen of Norfolk Solar. Not surprisingly, they all predicted stunning growth in both distributed solar and jobs as a result of the IRA.

Solar has made fewer inroads in Southwest Virginia than in other parts of the state, which Conant sees as an opportunity. One of the few unionized solar companies in the area, and the only one I know of focused exclusively on Appalachia, Solar Holler has been expanding into Southwest Virginia and hiring workers at a steady clip. (Disclosure: I own a tiny stake in Solar Holler.)

The company already uses American-made components, so Conant said coalfields residents will be able to take advantage of two of the adders to install solar on their homes and businesses at half price, with low-income residents paying even less. The IRA’s manufacturing tax credits for American solar companies will further reduce the cost of the projects.

Conant was especially excited about the IRA’s impact on jobs in Appalachia. He expects to ramp up hiring significantly once the IRA becomes law. It took no prodding from me for him to add, “I truly believe this bill will let us get to 100% clean energy in 15 years.”

Secure Futures also has projects underway in Southwest Virginia as well as elsewhere across the state. The company uses third-party PPAs to allow tax-exempt customers like schools and nonprofits to go solar with no money down, paying just for the electricity produced by the panels. Although the IRA allows these customers to get the tax benefits without a PPA, Secure Futures president Tony Smith said tax-exempt entities will still do better using PPAs to take advantage of accelerated depreciation.

Smith said the IRA will make an already strong solar market in Virginia even stronger, as the higher tax credits will push down prices and the transferability of the credits will make it easier to attract more investors to solar. At the same time, a provision of the VCEA requiring Dominion Energy Virginia to acquire renewable energy certificates (RECs) from distributed generation facilities has created a strong market for these certificates, helping to finance projects and making solar even more affordable for institutional customers that sell their solar RECs.

On the other side of the commonwealth, Norfolk Solar also installs solar in low-income communities, offering PPAs to both commercial customers and low-income residents in economically distressed areas that qualify for special tax treatment as Qualified Opportunity Zones. (Under Virginia law, residential PPAs are available only to low-income customers.) Amundsen pointed out that the 10-year time horizon of the tax credits is an added benefit of the IRA to both her customers and potential investors because it allows for long-range planning and multi-year projects.

Energy storage will stand on its own

The VCEA established one of the most ambitious goals for energy storage development in the nation. But current federal law offers tax credits for energy storage only when it is part of a renewable energy project. The limitation has led to the proliferation of solar-plus-batteries projects around the country. It’s an ideal combination because it allows solar energy to be used when it is needed, unshackled from the time of day that it’s produced.

But uncoupling storage from renewable energy projects is a more efficient way to manage the grid, said Steve Donches, a Loudoun County attorney who represents battery storage companies and recently served on the Virginia Energy Storage Task Force.

“In many instances, the best location for storage supporting the grid is not where the renewables are located but rather near grid chokepoints or inside load pockets,” he said. “Moreover, site selection flexibility can often be important from a zoning permitting perspective. The new approach allows developers to be more nimble and locate where it is most useful and cost efficient.”

Recognizing this, the IRA provides a tax credit of up to 30% for energy storage whether or not it is part of a renewable energy facility.

This will make grid storage less expensive and easier for our utilities to install, and it will also benefit customers who want to put batteries in their buildings for back-up power. Amundsen noted that her customers sometimes can’t afford to include a battery at the time they install solar; the IRA will let them take the tax credit for storage even if they buy the battery later. This is especially important, she said, for resilience in low-income neighborhoods, where adding a battery to a solar-powered church or community center allows it to “island” during a power outage and provide a refuge for neighbors.

Homeowners will see huge benefits from building electrification

A cleaner electricity grid makes it possible to decarbonize other sectors of the economy by substituting electricity for fossil fuels in transportation and buildings; hence the climate advocates’ mantra “Electrify everything.” Yet while new electric appliances have become more energy efficient and attractive to consumers than the ones they replace, the switch comes with a price tag.

Under the new law, price will no longer be a barrier. The IRA offers rebates to residents to upgrade their homes with new electric technology such as heat pumps for heating and cooling (up to $8,000), electric induction stoves ($840), heat pump water heaters ($1,750) and upgrades to home electrical systems to support all the new load ($4,000). The rebates phase out for higher-income earners. Lower-income families replacing old and inefficient appliances will see the greatest energy savings as well as the highest rebates.

The federal rebates are a fantastic complement to existing Virginia programs for low-income energy efficiency upgrades. A major attraction of Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is the hundreds of millions of dollars it raises for low-income efficiency programs such as those devoted to upgrading multifamily housing like apartment buildings. Coordinating the state programs with the new federal rebates should be an urgent priority to ensure the broadest possible benefits to low-income Virginians.

Meanwhile, gas utilities had better start planning for the end of their business. There is no longer any reason to expand and upgrade gas distribution pipelines, because from here on in their customer base will be shrinking, not growing, resulting in stranded assets.

Electric vehicles aren’t just for the rich any more

Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The IRA provides a $7,500 EV tax credit for new vehicles, including those made by manufacturers like Tesla and Toyota that had reached volume caps in previous law. Restrictions apply, including income limits, vehicle price caps and supply chain sourcing rules. The act also now adds a credit of up to $4,000 for used vehicles, making ownership possible for more people at all income levels.

Virginia is committed to vehicle electrification through its adoption of clean cars legislation in 2021 and a 2022 law requiring state agencies to buy electric light-duty vehicles whenever the total cost of ownership is less than it would be for a vehicle with an internal combustion engines. But further speeding up the transition to EVs will create ripple effects requiring careful planning. Electricity demand will increase and do so unevenly, requiring load management programs and upgrades to parts of the distribution grid.

https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/05/05/data-centers-and-electric-vehicles-will-drive-up-virginia-electricity-demand-uva-forecaster-predicts/embed/#?secret=EvWicAM2Bx

Charging all these vehicles will also be an issue. Many would-be EV customers lack the ability to charge at home, either because they don’t own the space where they park or because their homes aren’t wired for easy installation of a charger. The problem is especially acute for people who rent apartments in buildings that lack charging stations.

No matter how generous the credits, people won’t buy EVs if they can’t charge them. Virginia must require multifamily buildings to include enough charging stations for all the residents who want them, ensure public charging stations are plentiful and convenient in low-income neighborhoods and improve its residential housing code to ensure new homes are wired to facilitate installation of chargers.

For best results, lean in

Photo credit iid.com

Virginia law requires each new governor to produce an energy plan in October of the first year in office, so Virginia’s Department of Energy is currently in the process of writing a plan that will have Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s stamp on it. The plan must be one that “identifies actions over a 10-year period consistent with the goal of the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy set forth in § 45.2-1706.1 to achieve, no later than 2045, a net-zero carbon energy economy for all sectors, including the electricity, transportation, building, agricultural, and industrial sectors.”

Governor Youngkin hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for Virginia’s energy transition to date, having tried to gut the VCEA and repeal RGGI. Yet with the IRA making so many incentives available for clean energy and electric vehicles, leaning in to the energy transition now will allow the commonwealth to reap huge rewards in the form of economic development, job growth, cleaner air and lower energy bills.

The opportunities for Virginia are enormous; the governor should make the most of them.

This article originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on August 9, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

Your electric bills are skyrocketing. Blame our failure to invest in renewable energy.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fossil fuel prices are higher everywhere, and the effect is hitting electric bills as well as prices at the gas pump. 

Utilities that generate power from natural gas and coal face fuel costs two or three times as high as they were just a couple of years ago —and those costs are passed on to customers. Some utilities employ hedging strategies and long-term contracts to reduce the impact of price spikes. But as a general matter, how painful your bill increase will be is a function of how much electricity your utility generates from fossil fuels. 

Gee, don’t you wish we had more renewable energy in Virginia? 

Let’s review the problem. Dominion Energy Virginia, our largest utility, generates most of its electricity from gas and coal, with 29 percent from nuclear and a tiny percentage from solar and biomass. Our second-largest utility, Appalachian Power, derives 85 percent of its power from coal and gas and only 15 percent from renewable energy, primarily wind and hydro. 

Both utilities are investing more in renewables now, but for years they lagged other states even as wind and solar became the lowest-cost sources of energy nationwide. Because the “fuel” for wind turbines and solar panels is free, those sources generate electricity at a stable price that looks even better when coal and gas prices go up. (Nuclear reactors are fueled by uranium, so they aren’t affected by the fossil fuel crunch either; even so, most of them need subsidies to compete in the wholesale market.) 

As previously reported in the Mercury, Dominion filed a request with the State Corporation Commission in May to increase the “fuel factor” portion of its customer bills, citing the higher prices. In the past year, according to Dominion, the price of the natural gas it bought has gone up 100 percent. High gas prices cause utilities to switch to coal generation when it’s cheaper, so the price of coal also rose by 92 percent. In all, the company said it incurred more than a billion dollars more in fuel costs over the past year than it budgeted for a year ago. 

Under Virginia law, Dominion and APCo “pass through” the costs of fuel directly to customers. They don’t collect a profit, but they don’t have to swallow unexpected increases themselves. Customers will have to pay higher rates for as long as it takes Dominion to recoup the extra spending. The only question for the SCC is how quickly Dominion should collect the money.

Consumers in other states are also being hit by higher electricity bills, but the effect is uneven across the country. States that built more renewable energy protected their residents from fuel price increases. 

Data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows that with few exceptions, states with lower electricity rates than Virginia’s have more renewable energy than we do. Since the EIA data doesn’t reflect all the planned increases due to rising coal and gas prices, the disparity will become even more pronounced over the coming year. 

States in the Pacific Northwest with a lot of inexpensive hydroelectric power have especially low rates, but wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new energy. The higher fossil fuel prices go, the better wind and solar look by comparison. 

States in the Great Plains have been building wind for years because it outcompetes everything else, so their rates are low and increasingly insulated from fossil fuel volatility. South Dakota residents pay less per kilowatt-hour than Virginians do, and the state gets a whopping 83 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, primarily wind. Even North Dakota, a deep red state wedded to fossil fuels, gets more than 35 percent of its electricity from wind and another 5 percent from hydro. Its rates are already much lower than Virginia’s, and its renewable energy will cushion fuel cost increases. 

Investments in solar are also paying off. Take Utah for example, where residential rates are also far lower than Virginia’s. Utah has a coal problem, with 61 percent of its electricity from that one dirty source, and another 24 percent from natural gas. But, as EIA reports, “almost all the rest of in-state generation came from renewable energy, primarily solar power.” Moreover, “solar energy powers about 93 percent of Utah’s electric generating capacity added since 2015.” Evidently, Utah spent the past seven years working to future-proof its energy supply, while Dominion kept building more gas plants. 

Virginia’s slow start on the transition to renewable energy is the direct result of poor investment decisions by our utilities and a disgraceful myopia on the part of the State Corporation Commission. Environmental advocates pointed out for years that our over-commitment to fracked gas meant we’ve been gambling on fuel costs and undervaluing price stability. But the SCC kept approving new fossil fuel projects, and actually urged Dominion to build more gas plants.

Indeed, our situation would be even worse if the General Assembly had not passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act in 2020. The VCEA requires our utilities to transition to carbon-free electricity by 2050 and establishes wind and solar targets for Dominion and APCo to achieve by 2035. The targets are still too low to meet the climate emergency — but until the VCEA became law, Dominion was planning to build even more gas plants

Now customers have to pay for Dominion’s folly. Dominion’s filing states that if it recovers the entire $1 billion shortfall over the coming year, residential bills would have to go up by 19.8 percent. Dominion instead proposes to spread the higher charges over three years to ease the shock, making the bill increase 12.2 percent.  The effect would be further moderated this year by other adjustments the company proposes, like moving the costs of participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative into base rates, where they can be absorbed because those rates are so inflated. (On the other hand, the SCC just granted Dominion a separate rate increase for spending to extend the life of its aging nuclear plants—an undertaking projected to cost nearly $4 billion.) 

An SCC hearing examiner heard testimony in Dominion’s rate case on July 6 and 7. A ruling is expected later this summer, and the SCC seems likely to approve the three-year plan. 

Spreading the cost of higher fuel prices out over a longer time may reduce the rate shock, but there are drawbacks to this approach. First, Dominion will charge customers the financing costs of deferring collection on the full amount, adding to the total cost burden. (What, did you think the company was offering to absorb that cost itself?) The way it works is that ratepayers will borrow money to pay off our debt to Dominion, then repay the loan with interest over the next three years. 

The second problem is that if the high cost of fossil fuel isn’t temporary, extending the recovery period will lead to even greater shocks in coming years. If prices stay high and we keep kicking the can down the road, we will pay more financing costs and pile up more debt. Where does this end?

This is not mere speculation. Dominion’s filing already projects that “fuel costs will remain elevated over the next year,” and expert witness testimony in the case notes that Dominion revised its natural gas price projections upwards after it filed its request, without updating the amount it is seeking to collect to reflect the higher projections. 

Over at Appalachian Power the situation may not be any better. APCo typically seeks its fuel factor rate increases in September of each year. Last year the utility sought a $3 average increase in residential bills to cover higher fuel costs, at a time when coal and gas prices were still well below this year’s prices. When the company files for its next fuel factor increase two months from now, the rate increase it seeks is likely to pack a much bigger punch. 

What of other Virginia utilities? Our smallest publicly-owned utility, Kentucky Utilities (Old Dominion Power, which serves five counties in southwest Virginia), is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels although now planning to build more renewables. ODP filed for a modest rate increase in February of this year, just before Russia invaded Ukraine and sent world natural gas prices to heights not seen since the start of the fracking revolution. 

Chris Whelan, vice president for communications and corporate responsibility, told me ODP is able to dampen the effect of fuel price volatility through a “flexible fuel procurement strategy that includes long-term contracts to help hedge against price swings as well as the ability to purchase fuel on the spot market when prices drop.” Still, ODP will have to seek another increase next February unless prices suddenly plummet. The utility recovers excess fuel costs (or lowers rates if fuel costs fall) on an annual basis, so customers would pay off the full amount over 12 months. 

Electric cooperatives that buy electricity from Old Dominion Electric Cooperative also face price increases due to high fossil fuel prices and a paucity of renewables. ODEC’s 2021 energy profile shows it generates 38 percent of its electricity from gas, 14 percent from nuclear, and 4 percent from coal. It purchases the rest from the wholesale market (38 percent) and from renewable energy projects (6 percent). Electricity sold on the PJM wholesale market is generated mainly by natural gas, nuclear and coal, so wholesale market prices are also higher now.

According to Kirk Johnson, ODEC’s senior vice president for member engagement, ODEC has had to raise energy prices twice since the beginning of the year, effective May 1 and July 1. Assuming individual distribution cooperatives passed those costs through immediately, residential co-op customers will have seen a 16 percent increase in their electricity rates since Jan. 1. That’s a really steep increase, but Johnson notes ODEC will collect the full amount of the excess cost by Jan. 1, 2023. 

ODEC’s increase for six months is almost four percentage points lower than the increase Dominion would impose for 12 months if it were to collect its full $1 billion in the shortest time possible. Johnson said ODEC engages in a hedging strategy that acts like an insurance policy to limit the effect of fuel price volatility, and that this strategy has saved their ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

So hedging and long-term contracts can smooth out fossil fuel volatility, but rates are going up everywhere in Virginia. The lesson is clear enough: “cheap” fracked gas was a bad bargain. Our utilities should have been building wind and solar over the last several years to protect us from fossil fuel price volatility, rather than waiting for the General Assembly to force them to act. 

Going forward, the more we invest in wind and solar, the more price stability we will have in our electricity rates, and the less we will have to worry about high fossil fuel prices in the future.  

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 18, 2022. I’ve corrected information for Utah.

*EIA’s webpage lists each state’s average residential price of electricity per kilowatt-hour, but finding the fuel mix for each state requires looking up each one separately. For those of you who like to dive into these details, I’ve assembled the information for you. Note that most of EIA’s data is for 2021, but some state data is for 2020. Unfortunately this includes Virginia.

StatePrice cents/kWh% REsource of RE
Virginia12.837biomass, hydro, solar
Idaho9.8674mostly hydro
Washington10.1275mostly hydro
North Dakota10.4840mostly wind
Utah10.6615mostly solar
Montana11.0052mostly hydro
Wyoming11.0619mostly wind
Nebraska11.1128mostly wind
Oregon11.2268mostly hydro, some wind
Missouri11.5412mostly wind
Arkansas11.7510mostly hydro
Louisiana11.984biomass
South Dakota12.0382wind, hydro
Iowa12.0960almost all wind
North Carolina12.2616mostly solar and hydro
Oklahoma12.3845mostly wind
Kentucky12.637hydro

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em? Dominion Energy now selling residential solar

Sierra Club members talk to Richmond homeowner Kevin Ciafarini about his experience with solar.

Dominion Energy never used to be happy about customers producing their own energy from solar. “Hostile” is more the word that springs to mind. The company has traditionally seen privately owned solar arrays as competition: The more solar panels people put on their roofs, the less electricity they buy from their utility.

But Virginia has long allowed net metering, and in 2020 our General Assembly came down firmly on the side of customers by expanding opportunities for onsite solar. Consumers responded with the enthusiasm legislators hoped for. Industry statistics show annual residential solar installations in the commonwealth roughly tripled from 2019 to today. 

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Virginia homeowners and businesses in the market for a solar array can now buy it from a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Energy called BrightSuite. The BrightSuite website touts some of the same customer benefits that solar advocates have been pointing out all these years: consumer savings, carbon reductions, stable electric bills. And why shouldn’t Dominion sell solar? As the website declares, “We embrace change with a commitment first and foremost to meet our customers’ evolving energy needs.”

Well, amen to that! With climate chaos impacting people’s lives and high fossil fuel prices driving up utility bills faster than the rate of inflation, customers’ energy needs certainly have evolved, and they do now include onsite solar arrays. We just didn’t expect to hear that from Dominion. 

But that’s okay, we welcome latecomers! Moreover, while Dominion’s entry into the residential market will make some people uneasy, it could goose demand, growing the distributed solar market for everyone while pushing out the price-gougers.   

First, though, let’s address that unease. Having an affiliate of the local utility compete for a homeowner’s business puts independent installers at a definite disadvantage. Dominion has a much broader marketing reach, and BrightSuite’s use of the Dominion name carries an implied promise of trustworthiness. In a market crowded with competitors, name recognition and the assurance that a company isn’t going away any time soon are distinct advantages. 

But Dominion’s entry into the retail solar business could ultimately be good for independent installers. Dominion doesn’t do anything inexpensively, and its home solar offering appears to be no exception. If Dominion persuades more customers to look into home solar, and those customers then comparison shop, companies that can offer a better deal will get more business.  

Sarah Vogelsong recently wrote about a project of the HR Climate Hub, which solicited quotes from solar installers for the same single-family home in order to compare prices and service, and to flag potentially predatory sellers. The website offers helpful advice to Virginia homeowners about how solicit and compare offers. It also lists prices and terms from a dozen companies, ranging from a low of $2.10 per watt from Tesla to a high of $5.62 from Power Home Solar. Two small, well-regarded Virginia Beach installers submitted bids of $2.80 and $2.85. BrightSuite’s quote (added after the Mercury article ran) came in at $3.25. 

HR Climate Hub’s figures square with information from the Solar Energy Industries Association, which provides advice for consumers and tracks the average cost of residential solar systems through a service called SolarReviews. According to the website, “As of Jun 2022, the average cost of solar panels in Virginia is $2.66 per watt making a typical 6000 watt (6 kW) solar system $11,797 after claiming the 26% federal solar tax credit now available.”

I asked HR Climate Hub for additional information about the BrightSuite quote and was glad to learn the company uses high quality REC solar panels that carry a 25-year warranty, along with microinverters made by Enphase, a top-quality American company. So, no bottom shelf components here. However, the quote did not mention warranty or maintenance information for the installation work. These do not appear on the BrightSuite website either, apart from a one-year performance guarantee. 

It goes without saying that anyone investing thousands of dollars on a major home improvement should shop around, compare prices, and read warrantees. Prices listed on HR Climate Hub and SolarReviews are a good starting point. Where available, bulk purchase programs like those offered by Solarize NoVa and Virginia Solar United Neighbors provide discounts as well as expert advice. 

But it wouldn’t be surprising if even well-informed consumers choose to pay a premium to get a solar installation from BrightSuite simply because the company is associated with their utility. Name recognition goes a long way in marketing, and a lot of customers will want the security of knowing Dominion Energy isn’t likely to take the money and disappear into the night. With this marketing advantage, I expect BrightSuite will quickly emerge as a market leader in spite of its higher-than-average price. 

Ultimately, however, Dominion’s entry into the market may grow the pie for everyone. Homeowners who have held back from installing solar because they don’t know who to trust may feel confident enough to call BrightSuite. Once they have one quote, many will comparison shop.  

At the very least, Dominion’s entry into the home solar market should set a price ceiling. Why would anyone pay $5 per watt or more for a solar array from a company they probably don’t know anything about, when they could get $3.25 from their utility? Price gougers, beware: your time here is up.

This article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on June 17, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

Not a great time to roll out Dominion’s pricey solar tariff

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, that didn’t take long.

A few weeks after I wrote about rising natural gas prices, Dominion Energy Virginia asked the SCC for permission to raise the price of electricity by about $9 per month for the average residential customers, citing higher fuel costs. Virginia law allows utilities to pass through its fuel costs to customers, without a profit margin, making it unlikely the SCC will turn down the request. Natural gas is Dominion’s largest fuel source, so its electricity rates are highly vulnerable to price swings in the market for fracked gas.

That makes this a really peculiar time for Dominion to launch a new solar energy purchase option that will add about $20 per month on average for customers who elect to meet their entire electricity demand with solar, without exempting them from the coming bill increase due to higher gas prices. If the company were trying to discourage people from signing up for its solar product, it could hardly have chosen a better time. The fact that the company delayed the launch of this program for more than three years, only to offer it now, makes it all the more suspect.

Dominion’s solar option, confusingly (and wrongly) called “Community Solar” is the product of legislation passed in 2017, three years before the General Assembly authorized private solar developers to sell to Virginia customers. The 2020 legislation dubbed the private program “shared solar,” and it remains mired in SCC rulemaking.

But Dominion Community Solar is different. As I wrote back in 2018, when the SCC approved the program (and its launch seemed imminent), this program is really a solar tariff. Dominion generates electricity from solar and puts it on the grid, and customers who want to run their homes and businesses on solar pay extra on their bill.

As part of the deal, participants also get the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with the solar energy. That prevents Dominion from selling the RECs to anyone else or using them to show compliance with Virginia’s new renewable portfolio standard (RPS). This is important to avoid double-counting and ensure that solar paid for by the voluntary market is in addition to the solar developed to serve customers under the RPS.

The $20 premium for the program will sound unreasonably high to people who have experience with community solar in other states, where it is typically offered at a discount to regular grid power. In many states, private developers build the solar facilities and sell the output to participants. The rate is typically fixed for many years, because solar has low O&M costs and uses no fuel. Customers still pay their utility for transmission and distribution, but the community solar fee replaces utility-delivered generation rates. Accordingly, participating customers are insulated from price increases due to higher natural gas (or coal) costs.

That is not Dominion Community Solar. Dominion’s program requires customers to pay for all the utility’s costs of running its generating plants and purchasing fuel and paying for rate adjustment clauses (RACs), including those for new renewable energy facilities that serve the entire rate base and RECs bought for the RPS. These solar-only customers will also have to pay Dominion’s costs for buying carbon allowances in the RGGI market, which the company incurs as a result of generating power from fossil fuels. (Dominion is hoping Governor Youngkin will succeed in pulling Virginia out of RGGI and has suggested shifting compliance costs from riders to base rates in the meantime, clearly as a way to mitigate the rate increase due to high gas prices.)

Dominion Community Solar customers will pay for all these costs of fossil fuel generation, and the cost of Dominion building renewable energy facilities for all its other customers. And then on top of all that, they will pay an extra $20 per month.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether $20 is even a fair premium for a solar tariff. Ultra-high gas prices, RPS riders and RGGI compliance costs are all new since the SCC authorized Dominion’s program in 2018. It’s hard to imagine the SCC agreeing today that program participants should pay all these costs in addition to the cost of developing community-sized solar arrays.

But something else has changed too: The shared solar legislation passed in 2020 promised customers the alternative of being able to buy solar from a third-party provider, unhooking participants from the roller-coaster ride of fossil fuel prices. As I noted before, though, shared solar is mired in proceedings at the SCC, where Dominion is seeking to impose such high fixed costs on participants as to make the program impossible to offer.

Right now, Dominion has an SCC hearing examiner mostly on its side.

If the SCC commissioners accept the hearing examiner’s recommendations, that could spell the end of shared solar—or at any rate, make Dominion’s $20 look good by comparison.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 16, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. Today, the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So for the first time I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. And if you’re free on June 12, come join the Solar Walk in Richmond that I’ll be co-leading!

A historic turning point: solar beat coal in Virginia in 2021

Photo by Activ Solar via Wikimedia Commons.

It had to happen sometime, but even staunch supporters of Virginia’s transition to clean energy might not have expected this so soon in a former coal state. The precipitous decline of coal as a fuel source, and the rise of solar energy as the new “fuel” of choice, resulted in solar facilities producing more electricity than coal did in Virginia over the course of 2021. 

Using Energy Information Agency data, the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia produced these two graphs. Bill Shobe, the center’s director of economic research, says Virginia generated 3,365 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity with solar and 3,130 GWh with coal. 

Only three coal-fired plants remain in Virginia: Chesterfield (slated for retirement), Clover, and Virginia City. All have capacity factors in the ‘teens, meaning they are idle most of the time. They now run only during the coldest months of winter and the hottest months of summer (producing the spikes you see in the month-by-month graph), and all are under economic pressure to close for good. In addition, Dominion Energy owns the Mt. Storm coal plant just over the border in West Virginia that runs about 42 percent of the time. 

A divided General Assembly can find common ground on clean energy

Almost two years ago, Virginia’s General Assembly made history with a series of laws shepherding Virginia towards a future of clean, low-cost wind and solar energy. During this year’s election campaign, Republican talking points included attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the law at the center of the transition. But talk, as they say, is cheap. With the VCEA protected by the Democratic majority in the Senate, Republicans didn’t have to put forward a serious alternative, and they didn’t.

Now that the Republicans have won the governorship and a majority in the House of Delegates, passing any new legislation (or repealing anything already in place) will require bipartisan action. Democrats want to protect Virginia’s progress in tackling carbon emissions and putting equity into energy planning. Republicans want to reduce burdens on industry. Both sides want affordable electricity and a robust economy that creates jobs. Rhetoric aside, there is much to agree on.

Solar is wildly popular with conservatives as well as liberals, in part because it saves money. With no fuel costs, and ever-falling prices of solar panels, solar arrays are now the go-to choice for utilities that need more power. It is cheaper for a utility to build a new solar facility today than to operate an existing coal plant in Virginia. 

As for existing gas plants, they compete with solar only when the price of fracked gas is low. Gas prices have doubled in the past year, so Virginia’s current reliance on natural gas for 60% of our electricity generation hurts everyone’s wallets. 

And while fracked gas is imported from other states, we can build solar and wind facilities here in the Commonwealth and off our coast, so our own workers and businesses benefit. The faster we bring on the energy transition, the better for our economy. 

The energy transition also means cleaner air and water for our children, improving the efficiency of homes to make them more comfortable and less costly to live in, reducing the energy burden on low-income residents, helping coastal communities adapt to rising sea levels, and giving people greater freedom to invest their own money in solar panels on their own property. All of these are part of the VCEA and the other bills that guide our energy transition, and repealing them now would be shooting ourselves in both feet.

Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. Last year legislators established a fund to put renewable energy on abandoned mine sites and other brownfields, but didn’t allocate money. Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill just passed in Congress, Virginia will receive an estimated $23,579,905 annually in federal abandoned mine land funding. Once former mine sites are cleaned up, they will be ideal locations for solar facilities, and the General Assembly should make sure that happens. 

Other federal funding will support smart grid and transmission investments. Some of these projects are already underway in Virginia, and the General Assembly should make sure that savings go to ratepayers, not to utilities.

Solar on schools has been one of the greatest success stories of the past few years in Virginia, with more than 45 jurisdictions signing contracts that will put solar panels on school roofs at no up-front cost, and with energy savings every year. But some schools are still built with roofs that aren’t designed to support solar. That has to change. 

Indeed, in 2019 the General Assembly passed a Republican-sponsored bill that went further, declaring it “the intent of the General Assembly that new public school buildings and facilities and improvements and renovations to existing public school buildings and facilities be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated to generate more electricity than consumed.” In 2022, legislators could turn this into a requirement, saving money for taxpayers across the Commonwealth. 

Community solar offers another money-saving opportunity. Legislation passed in 2020 will allow residents and businesses to buy electricity from shared solar projects developed by private companies. The initial program is small and confined to customers of Dominion Energy, which is trying to persuade regulators to mandate crushingly high minimum bills. Legislators can fix these problems by expanding the program statewide and capping the minimum bill. 

The General Assembly has repeatedly failed to rein in the power of utilities like Dominion, which uses its influence to protect its profits at the expense of consumers. The ability to make unlimited political contributions backfired on Dominion when its $200,000 contribution to an anti-Youngkin campaign was exposed. But public utilities should not be allowed to buy influence, period. Let’s make this the year that stops.

This op-ed appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 27,2021. 

Of synagogues and subsidies

A while back I was engaged in an online discussion with other solar advocates about renewable energy — specifically, how to get more of it built. Some of the participants I knew, others I did not. The conversation was lively, ranging from the need for better education to public policy and incentives.

But then one of the participants threw in an unexpected comment. His email read, “Aren’t we all tired of synagogues?”

The question stopped me cold. I had never heard anyone express weariness of synagogues, much less understood that to be a consensus sentiment. However, I’m not Jewish, so if it were something my Jewish friends grumbled about among themselves but did not share more widely, then I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.

But our discussion was about renewable energy, so surely the comment could not really be about a physical house of worship. “Synagogue” had to be shorthand for something else. If someone said “aren’t we all tired of church,” it might be understood to refer to doctrinal thinking, or more likely, to preaching. You could see how someone would be tired of renewable energy advocates preaching about the benefits of wind turbines and solar panels. Could “synagogue” be meant as a sort of metaphor for haranguing people?

It seemed like a stretch, even assuming the person who had made the comment was Jewish, which I didn’t know. I looked back at the email to see if the name might give me a clue. At that moment, another email came through from him: “Sorry about that autocorrect, it was supposed to be ‘subsidies.’”

Ah.

I was relieved that synagogue fatigue was off the table, but now I had a new question to ponder: Are we, in fact, all tired of subsidies?

Opposition to subsidies is one of the touchstones of free-market capitalism, and even within the wind and solar industries you will find believers in the proposition that if a technology can’t attract enough customers on its own merits, it deserves to remain niche, and the government ought not to put its fat thumb on the scale.

Republican attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, passed last year by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, are often framed as opposition to the government “picking winners and losers.” The law certainly does that, by directing utilities to close coal plants and incorporate an increasing percentage of electricity from wind and solar.

Some Republicans are raising the same objection in response to the Biden administration’s plans for addressing the climate crisis. Technological advances and market forces are already moving us inexorably towards a clean energy economy—but not fast enough. So Biden’s initiatives rely on the full range of government powers, subsidies among them, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in an effort to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe.

But here’s the thing: to the extent the U.S. has anything resembling an energy policy, subsidies have always been a tool of first resort. Indeed, this has been the case literally since the nation’s founding. Often the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not in whether they embrace subsidies, but which ones they favor.

Cash grants, tax credits, loan guarantees, low-cost access to public land, public purchasing requirements, protective tariffs and federal R&D funding all shape the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed, and they are responsible for the fossil-fuel heavy energy economy we have today. Even U.S. foreign policy and our military have been deployed for the benefit of extractive industries. A century ago, the National Guard came to the aid of the coal barons against striking miners. More recently, a think tank crunched numbers to estimate the U.S. spends $81 billion per year to  protect global oil supplies. That figure rises to over $3 trillion when you count the Iraq war.

Externalities matter, too. If an industry is allowed to inflict damage to a community’s air and water, that is a form of subsidy that can be partly measured in dollars spent on health care and clean-up. Regulations requiring expensive pollution controls can lessen the economic advantages of offloading costs onto the public, but any remaining costs shouldered by the public are a subsidy to the polluter.

Conversely, by displacing fossil fuels, a clean energy facility may confer a public benefit far exceeding the cost of any government subsidy it receives. When we’re dealing with climate change, the public benefit of carbon-free energy is immense.

None of this is an argument against the merits of free market competition, which remains the economy’s most important driver of innovation leading to better and cleaner energy technologies. Well-designed subsidies should work with the market, not against it, to speed the energy transition towards a net-zero future.

And to that we should all say, Amen.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 14, 2021.

Everybody talks about bringing solar to low-income households. This guy is doing it (and you can, too).

Photo credit Don Crawford for GiveSolar

Regular readers of this blog know I discourage Virginians from spending their money on so-called green energy offerings from Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, or REC sellers like Arcadia. They might make you feel better about the electricity you use, but the best products do little to put new solar projects on the grid, and the worst are actually counter-productive

There is a better way to put solar on the grid and salve your conscience, while also cutting out the middleman. Take the money you were going to pay to Dominion Energy for its Green Power Program (or are already paying, if I didn’t warn you off soon enough), and give it to someone who will put actual solar panels on actual houses in Virginia.

That someone might be Jeff Heie, whose non-profit, GiveSolar, works with low-income home-builder Habitat for Humanity in Rockingham County, Virginia to outfit Habitat homes with rooftop solar. The homeowner gets a 4-kilowatt system that cuts their electricity bill by $40; they commit to sending half that amount back to GiveSolar to help pay for the cost of solar on future Habitat homes. 

GiveSolar keeps installation costs down by holding solar “barn-raisings” using volunteers from the community and a solar company, Green Hill Solar, that is willing to install at cost. As a result, a 4-kW system can be installed for $5,000, about half price. 

Eventually GiveSolar expects its Solar Seed Fund to be self-funding as owners of Habitat homes send in their $20 per month repayments, but meanwhile the organization needs donations to get the program up and running. Heie hopes to raise $100,000 to put solar on 20 homes.

It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that Dominion reports it has 30,000 Virginia customers enrolled in its Green Power Program. If all those customers are currently spending an average of just $5 per month on pointless RECs, and if they sent that money to GiveSolar instead, Heie would raise 150% of his goal every month

Indeed, Heie has plans to take his model to other Habitat for Humanity affiliates around Virginia; he told me he has already heard from five that are interested in installing solar. His approach has also won him the support of other nonprofits, including Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, which is helping to raise $20,000 for the first four projects in Rockingham County and has secured a $10,000 matching grant.

There is a huge need for projects like these. Many low-income Virginia residents spend more than 6 percent of their income on electricity and home heating. Legislators have responded with programs providing funding for low-income energy efficiency programs; capping energy costs for customers who qualify under a percentage-of-income calculation; authorizing Dominion to install solar on some low-income homes (with the utility’s usual profit-margin, and without the barn-raising); and establishing a shared solar program that, if successful, will give some low-income residents the ability to buy electricity from community solar facilities. 

But the potential for rooftop solar to lower energy costs and displace fossil fuels is so huge, and these government programs so limited, that there’s still plenty of room for GiveSolar’s inexpensive, hands-on, and self-sustaining approach. The Habitat homeowners who benefit pay the money back over time, creating a virtuous cycle. Donors don’t have to guess whether their money is building solar projects; they can see it happen, and even take part. Neighbors help neighbors, and by doing so, help the planet.

With a federal windfall incoming, Virginia should require school districts to build to green standards

The solar panels powering Arlington, Virginia’s Discovery Elementary School, seen through the windows of a science classroom. Photo by Ivy Main

More than $4.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars will be flowing to Virginia this year as part of the American Rescue Plan, with cities and counties in line for another $2.7 billion. In a joint statement in May, Governor Northam and Democratic leaders laid out spending priorities that included rehabilitating and upgrading the infrastructure in public schools. The General Assembly plans to meet for a special legislative session in August to allocate the funds. In addition to the federal money, Virginia also finds itself in the happy position of having surplus funds of its own to spend.

As it stands now, the federal funds cannot be used for new school construction, a restriction that upsets school officials in areas with aging schools and no budget to replace them. But whether some money is spent on new schools or not, the General Assembly should not just throw dollars out the door and hope for the best. Virginia has an enormous opportunity to improve student health and learning, correct historic injustices, and meet the demands of the climate crisis, but only if the right standards are in place from the outset.

First, funding should be prioritized to Title 1 schools, which are those with at least 40 percent of children from low-income families. Given Virginia’s history of segregation and racism, a high number of Title 1 schools are in Black communities, while others are in parts of rural Virginia that have been left behind economically.  Title 1 schools on average are older and in worse condition than schools in more affluent areas, and the students are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health problems that are exacerbated by mold and poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality and student well-being should be the primary goals for all new or renovated facilities, and it makes sense to start with the students most in need.

Second, while many localities are attracted to the idea of shiny new schools, in most cases it takes less time and costs less to retrofit an old school that is structurally sound than to tear it down and build new. It’s also better for the environment, even if the new school would be built to a “green” standard. Children don’t need new buildings; they need healthy, high-performing buildings. A beautiful remodel of the historic school their parents and grandparents attended could be just what the doctor ordered.

Third, new or renovated schools should be required to meet the highest standards for energy efficiency, including windows, insulation and HVAC. New construction should also be all-electric, as should most renovated buildings. This maximizes taxpayer savings on energy costs over the lifetime of the building, supports the goal of healthy indoor air, and is consistent with Virginia’s commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

Fourth, if the roof will be new or upgraded, it should be made solar-ready, allowing the school to take advantage of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) or solar services agreements to install solar panels. Leveraging private capital to pay for the school’s primary energy source stretches construction dollars. These agreements provide financing for solar facilities at no upfront cost and typically save money for schools from the outset. Once the solar panels are paid off, energy bills plummet and savings pile up.

New schools and deep retrofits can even achieve net-zero status affordably, and ought to be required to do so in most cases. Net-zero schools become a source of community pride and offer educational benefits as students learn about energy and how solar panels work. According to a study conducted for Fairfax County Public Schools, the additional upfront cost of building a net-zero-ready school (one that will produce as much energy as it uses once solar panels are added) is only about 5 percent more than standard construction, and the additional cost is recovered through energy savings in under 10 years. Renovating older schools to net-zero costs 11 percent more, but still pays off in 15 years.

Even if we weren’t worried about climate, these standards would make sense for student health and taxpayer savings. Yet today, school districts are not required to build high performance schools, and most don’t. The result is higher operating costs, and in some cases school boards being told that their brand-new schools won’t support solar. Solar companies say it’s probable that solar would be just fine, but this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yet it will continue to be cited as an obstacle if solar-readiness is not made standard.

Our children deserve better. Virginia should seize this year’s historic opportunity to invest in healthy, high-performing schools that are free of fossil fuels and will deliver long-term benefits for taxpayers and the climate.