Want more solar in Virginia? Here’s how to get it.

A Solar Foundation analysis showed Virginia could create 50,000 new jobs by committing to build enough solar to meet 10% of energy demand. Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

If there is an energy issue that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it is support for solar energy. It’s homegrown and clean, it provides local jobs, it lowers our carbon footprint, and it brings important national security and emergency preparedness benefits. Dominion Energy Virginia even says it’s now the cheapest option for new electric generation.

Yet currently Virginia lags far behind Maryland and North Carolina in total solar capacity installed, as well as in solar jobs and the percentage of electricity provided by solar. And at the rate we’re going, we won’t catch up. Dominion’s current Integrated Resource Plan calls for it to build just 240 megawatts (MW) per year for its ratepayers. How can we come from behind and score big?

First, our leaders have to set a serious goal. Virginia could create more than 50,000 new jobs by building enough solar to meet just 10 percent of our electricity demand by 2023. That requires a total of 15,000 MW of solar. Legislators should declare 15,000 MW of solar in the public interest, including solar from distributed resources like rooftop solar.

The General Assembly should consider a utility mandate as well. Our weak, voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) will never be met with wind and solar, and making it mandatory wouldn’t change that. (To understand why, read section 4 of my 2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy, here.) Getting solar into the RPS would require 1) making it mandatory; 2) increasing the targets to meaningful levels (including removing the nuclear loophole); 3) including mandatory minimums for solar and wind so they don’t have to compete with cheap renewable energy certificates (RECs) from out-of-state hydroelectric dams; and 4) providing a way for utilities to count the output of customer-owned solar facilities in the total, possibly through a REC purchase program to be set up by the State Corporation Commission.

The other way to frame a utility mandate would be to ignore the RPS and just require each utility to build (or buy the output of) its share of 15,000 MW of solar. Allowing utilities to count privately-owned, customer-sited solar towards the total would make it easier to achieve, and give utilities a reason to embrace customer investments in solar.

Second, the General Assembly has to remove existing barriers to distributed solar. Customers have shown an eagerness to invest private dollars in solar; the government and utilities should get out of the way. That means tackling several existing barriers:

  • Standby charges on residential solar facilities between 10 and 20 kilowatts (kW) should be removed. Larger home systems are growing in popularity to enable charging electric vehicles with solar. That’s a good thing, not something to be punished with a tax.
  • The 1% cap on the amount of electricity that can be supplied by net-metered systems should be repealed.
  • Currently customers cannot install a facility that is larger than needed to serve their previous year’s demand; the limitation should be removed or raised to 125% of demand to accommodate businesses with expansion plans and homeowners who plan to buy electric vehicles.
  • Customers should be allowed to band together to own and operate solar arrays in their communities to meet their electricity requirements. This kind of true community solar (as distinguished from the utility-controlled programs enabled in legislation last year) gives individuals and businesses a way to invest in solar even if they don’t have sunny roofs, and to achieve economies of scale. If community solar is too radical a concept for some (it certainly provokes utility opposition), a more limited approach would allow condominiums to install a solar facility to serve members.
  • Local governments should be allowed to use what is known as municipal net metering, in which the output of a solar array on government property such as a closed landfill could serve nearby government buildings.
  • Third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) offer a no-money-down approach to solar and have tax advantages that are especially valuable for universities, schools, local governments and non-profits. But while provisions of the Virginia Code clearly contemplate customers using PPAs, Virginia utilities perversely maintain they aren’t legal except under tightly-limited “pilot programs” hammered out in legislation enacted in recent years. The limitations are holding back private investment in solar; the General Assembly should pass legislation expressly legalizing solar third-party PPAs for all customers.

Third, the Commonwealth should provide money to help local governments install solar on municipal facilities. Installing solar on government buildings, schools, libraries and recreation centers lowers energy costs for local government and saves money for taxpayers while creating jobs for local workers and putting dollars into the local economy. That makes it a great investment for the state, while from the taxpayer’s standpoint, it’s a wash.

If the state needs to prioritize among eager localities, I recommend starting with the Coalfields region. The General Assembly rightly discontinued its handouts to coal companies in that region, which were costing taxpayers more than $20 million annually. Investing that kind of money into solar would help both the cash-strapped county governments in the area and develop solar as a clean industry to replace lost coal jobs.

Coupled with the ability to use third-party PPA financing, a state grant of, say, 30% of the cost of a solar facility (either immediately or paid out over several years) would drive significant new investment in solar.

Fourth, a tax credit for renewable energy property would drive installations statewide. One reason North Carolina got the jump on Virginia in solar was it had a robust tax credit (as well as a solar carve-out to its RPS). One bill has already been introduced for Virginia’s 2018 General Assembly session offering a 35% tax credit for renewable energy property, including solar, up to $15,000. (The bill is HB 54.)

Fifth, Virginia should enable microgrids. Unlike some other East Coast states, we’ve been lucky with recent hurricanes. The unlucky states have learned a terrible lesson about the vulnerability of the grid. They are now promoting microgrids as one way to keep the lights on for critical facilities and emergency shelters when the larger grid goes down. A microgrid combines energy sources and battery storage to enable certain buildings to “island” themselves and keep the power on. Solar is a valuable component of a microgrid because it doesn’t rely on fuel supplies that can be lost or suffer interruptions.

The General Assembly should authorize a pilot program for utilities, local governments and the private sector to collaborate on building solar microgrids with on-site batteries as a way to enhance community preparedness, provide power to buildings like schools that also serve as emergency shelters, and provide grid services to the utilities.

One way or another, solar energy is going to play an increasingly large role in our energy future. The technology is ready and the economics are right. The only question is whether Virginia leaders are ready to make the most of it in the coming year.

Virginia legislators look to tax breaks and barrier-busting to boost renewable energy

Let's get these projects moo-ving. Photo credit NREL

Let’s get these projects moo-ving. Photo credit NREL

The orchestrated mayhem of the Virginia General Assembly session is well underway. Thirteen days are gone and only twenty-one days remain until what’s known as “Crossover,” after which any bill that hasn’t passed its own chamber is effectively dead. This year Crossover falls on February 16. After that, each chamber considers only bills already passed by the other.

By that measure, yours truly is one lazy blogger, because I’m only just getting to the renewable energy bills. On the other hand, bills were still being filed until Friday, and some bills are undergoing revisions before they are heard in committee. These are moving targets; advocates beware.

Removing barriers to investment 

Readers of this blog know that Virginia law is riddled with barriers that restrain the market for wind and solar in Virginia. This year several bills take aim at the policies holding us back.

HB 1286 (Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg, in Commerce and Labor) is barrier-busting legislation developed by the solar industry in consultation with the wind industry and solar advocates. It clarifies that renewable energy companies that sell to retail customers under power purchase agreements (PPAs) are not public utilities and don’t have to meet the statutory requirements for public utilities and suppliers. Customers can use third-party PPAs to purchase renewable energy electricity generated by facilities located on the customer’s property, everywhere in the state. The bill also lifts the one percent cap on net metering programs relative to total utility sales, and authorizes community net metering programs. It also expands the concept of “agricultural net metering” to cover other customers who want to attribute electricity from one facility to multiple meters on the customer’s property.

In addition, the bill amends the Commonwealth’s energy policy by adding the goals of encouraging private sector distributed renewable energy, increasing security of the electricity grid by supporting distributed renewable energy projects, and augmenting the exercise of private property rights by landowners desiring to generate their own energy from renewable energy sources on their lands. None of this language by itself forces action, but the State Corporation Commission takes note of energy policy in its decision-making.

SB 140 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) attacks the standby charges that have been so controversial. It increases the size of electrical generating facilities operated by residential or agricultural net energy metering customers that are subject to a monthly standby charge from those with a capacity of 10 kilowatts to those with a capacity of 20 kilowatts. Since residential solar facilities that are net-metered are already limited to 20 kW, this would effectively repeal standby charges for residential net metering.

SB 139 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) makes a small change to the existing agricultural net metering option.

SB 148 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) replaces the pilot program enacted in 2013 that authorized a limited pilot program for third-party PPAs. generation facilities. The bill requires the State Corporation Commission to establish third-party power purchase agreement programs for each electric utility. The existing pilot program applies only to Dominion Virginia Power and sets the maximum size of a renewable generation facility at one megawatt; the programs authorized by SB 148 apply to all electric utilities and do not set limits on the size of facilities.

Although SB 148 is similar to HB 1286 in attempting to ensure the legality of third-party PPAs, solar advocates prefer HB 1286. Giving the State Corporation Commission authority here should not be necessary and might lead to higher costs and more regulations.

Community energy/solar gardens

It’s darned hard to buy renewable energy in Virginia if you are among the approximately 75% of residents who can’t put solar panels on your own roof or build a wind turbine out on the back forty. That’s an enormous untapped market.

SB 1286, above, contains a provision authorizing community energy programs In addition, HB 1285 (Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg, in Commerce and Labor) is a stand-alone bill that authorizes (but does not require) investor-owned utilities and coops to establish community energy programs.

HB 618 (Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, referred to Commerce and Labor) would require the State Corporation Commission to adopt rules for “community solar gardens” that would let customers subscribe to a portion of the output of a solar facility located elsewhere in their area. The solar electricity and the renewable energy credits (RECs) would be sold to the local utility, which would then credit the subscribers on their utility bills.

But whereas customers who have solar panels one their own roof get credited at full retail value and own the associated renewable energy credits, HB 618 allows the SCC to devise rules that could result in a much worse deal for solar garden subscribers, including allowing the utility to impose a “reasonable charge” to cover ill-defined costs.

That’s an unfortunate invitation to the utilities to pile on fees. Unless the utilities involved really want to make the program work for their customers, it’s hard to imagine this turning out well. We would not expect to see viable programs in Dominion or APCo territory if this passes. On the other hand, some municipal utilities have been more responsive to the interests of their customers, so it could work for them.

Tax credits and exemptions

An important tax bill to watch this year is HB 1305 (Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, referred to Finance), which changes the state and local tax treatment of solar and wind energy facilities. It exempts utility solar and wind from taxation, but lowers from 20 MW to 1 MW the size of other solar projects that are exempt from local machinery and tools tax (a kind of personal property tax; securing that exemption was a major win for the solar industry in 2014). The bill replaces the hard-won 100% exemption with an 80% exemption. The change is very nice for utilities (Virginia is always very nice to utilities), but it makes the economics worse for third-party owned facilities in the 1 MW to 20 MW range—exactly the ones the state should be trying to attract.

SB 743 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources) helps solar projects below 5 MW qualify for the above-mentioned tax exemption passed in 2014. The bill makes the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy the agency that certifies solar projects as “pollution control equipment and facilities,” eligible for exemption from state and local taxation. This exemption from state sales tax and local machinery and tools taxes is one of the few perks Virginia can offer commercial-scale solar developers here, where margins on projects are very thin compared with projects in North Carolina or Maryland with stronger incentives.

Tax credits are also on the agenda this year. Tax credits fell into disfavor in Virginia following an audit that revealed that many tax credits aren’t achieving their objectives (see: tax subsidies for coal mining). Senate Finance Committee members resolved to end them just about the same time the solar industry came asking for one themselves two years ago, with unhappy results for solar. But tax credits are legislative candy, and there’s no telling how long the diet will last. Hopeful persons may as well put out their own plate of chocolates. If the diet is off, then the main problem with this year’s bills, from the point of view of the Republicans who make up the majority of our legislature, is simply that they come from Democrats.

HB 480 (Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, referred to Finance) establishes a 35% tax credit for renewable energy property, to be claimed over 5 years, with a $5 million program cap. The credit would apply not just to wind and solar but also some biomass, combined heat and power, geothermal and hydro systems.

SB 142 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, referred to Finance) and HB 1050 (Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, referred to Finance) establish a tax credit of up to 30% for solar thermal systems used for water heating or space heating and cooling. Solar PV systems are not included in the bill.

State funding through carbon cap and trade

SB 571 (Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natuaral Resources) and HB 351 (Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Commerce and Labor) would require the Governor to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the cap-and-trade program that has successfully ratcheted down carbon emissions in the northeastern states. Funds generated by auction allowances would fund sea level rise adaptation in coastal areas, economic transition efforts for southwest Virginia, energy efficiency for low-income families, and distributed renewable energy programs.

Financing

HB 941 (David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, referred to Counties, Cities and Towns) expands the authorization for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to include residential and condominium projects. This would allow localities to offer low-interest financing to homeowners for both energy efficiency and renewable energy investments.

Utility cost recovery

HB 1220 (David Yancey, R-Newport News, referred to Commerce and Labor) is billed as a technical fix for language added to the Code last year that encourages utilities to invest in solar. The bill clarifies that a utility that purchases a solar facility is allowed cost recovery on the same favorable terms it would get by building the facility itself.

Energy storage

Energy storage is emerging as the hot new energy technology area, about where solar was five years ago. Interest in it has been driven by recent price declines as well as the success of wind and solar and the growing awareness that these carbon-free sources are likely to make up a significant portion of our electricity supply in coming years. So while the use of storage is by no means limited to renewable energy applications, I include it here because it will interest those who follow wind and solar policy.

HB 452 (Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) and SB 403 (Ebbin, D-Alexandria, in Commerce and Labor) create the Virginia Energy Storage Consortium to promote research, development, commercialization, manufacturing and deployment of energy storage. It’s a great idea.

HB 1137 (David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, in Commerce and Labor) directs the State Corporation Commission to develop a program to enable commercial and industrial customers to sell battery storage services to the grid. If you’ve heard of the concept known as “vehicle-to-grid” (using electric cars to put power back on the grid as well as drawing from it), you’ll understand what this is about. It would allow these and other “energy balancing devices” to provide value to the grid in the form of spinning reserves, frequency regulation, distribution system support, reactive power, demand response, or other electric grid services. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Biomass

Wind and solar have several less popular relatives with more tenuous claims on the renewable energy family name. Virginia’s definition of “renewable” embraces them all, regardless of merit. It treats biomass to a special place of honor, including even the burning of trees that haven’t been harvested sustainably, and regardless of how much pollution gets spewed into the atmosphere.

SB 647 (Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) and HB 973 (Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) would change that to require that electricity from new biomass plants, to qualify as renewable energy, would have to meet a minimum efficiency level. Burning wood from trees would generally meet that standard only when it produces both electricity and heat (or, through the magic of science, cooling).

Consumer choice

HB 444 (Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, in Commerce and Labor) and SB 745 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, in Commerce and Labor) would expand the current requirement that utilities inform ratepayers about their options for purchasing renewable energy.

Which might lead you to ask, “what options?” since for most of us here in Virginia they are sadly lacking. But maybe this year’s session will start to change that.

A note about House Commerce and Labor: Bills noted above that have been assigned to the House Committee on Commerce and Labor have all been assigned to its Subcommittee on Energy. This powerful subcommittee typically meets only once or twice before Crossover. I’m told it will meet on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 9, likely continuing well into the evening due to the number of bills assigned.

February 9 is also Clean Energy Lobby Day, when members of the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries descend on Richmond to educate legislators about the need for sound reforms. This year the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA is organizing the lobby day, which is free to participants. The organization has also created a petition to support third-party financing of solar in Virginia.


UPDATE:

Senator McEachin files bill for mandatory RPS. SB 761 Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) would make Virginia’s pathetic, voluntary RPS into a mandatory RPS that would rank as one of the best in the country. It would require utilities to meet an increasing percentage of electricity sales from solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, and energy efficiency, reaching 25% of base year sales by 2025 (and deleting the current, obnoxious slight-of-hand that leaves nuclear out of the equation, but keeping a base year of 2007). By 2017, half of it would have to come from sources located within Virginia.

Virginia regulators approve Appalachian Power’s “solar tax”

Virginia homeowners had better tell their solar installers to keep it under 10 kW. Photo credit Gray Watson

Virginia homeowners had better tell their solar installers to keep it under 10 kW. Photo credit Gray Watson

The State Corporation Commission has granted Appalachian Power Company’s request to be allowed to impose “standby” charges on residential customers with solar systems over 10 kilowatts. The charges can range up to more than $100 per month, regardless of how much electricity the homeowner actually draws from the grid.

In its Final Order in case number PUE-2014-00026, dated November 26, the SCC ruled that APCo’s standby charge complies with § 56-594 F of the Virginia Code, which provides for standby charges for net-metered residential systems between 10 and 20 kW. (The law does not allow for net metering of residential systems over 20 kW.)

Environmental groups intervened in the case and ran a grassroots campaign that generated over 1500 comments to the SCC, opposing what has been dubbed a “tax on the sun.” The result, however, was never in much doubt. The SCC has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to accept without scrutiny utility assertions that solar customers impose costs on other customers.

Attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who argued against the standby charges on behalf of the Sierra Club and other groups, say the SCC’s reasoning is flawed. According to Cale Jaffe, Director of the SELC’s Virginia office, “Appalachian Power actually conceded during the hearing that it was ‘not in a position’ to determine whether solar customers had ‘a positive or negative impact to the distribution cost of service.’  In other words, Appalachian Power said that solar customers might be having a positive impact in helping to reduce APCo’s distribution costs, but that the power company didn’t have the data and didn’t know one way or the other.”

Jaffe added, “We saw that piece of evidence as a fatal concession, at least with respect to the distribution portion of the charge.” Yet a reading of the Final Order suggests the Commission never even considered the point.

The SCC allowed APCo, like Dominion before it, to consider only transmission and distribution costs, ignoring generation costs for now. Advocates urge that solar systems produce power at times of peak demand, reducing the need for utilities to buy expensive peak power, and therefore actually saving them money. The utilities dispute this, but it is worth noting that APCo’s most recent Integrated Resource Plan from March of this year projects that solar power will be cheaper than its avoided cost of energy by 2019. But of course, the point of standby charges isn’t about the cost of solar, but about preventing customers from generating their own power.

In spite of all the time and money APCo has spent to get approval for the standby charges, the utility has said that only five existing customers will be affected. The real impact will be to limit the number of homeowners who choose to install large solar systems going forward. The prospect of paying high standby fees will likely discourage APCo customers from buying systems over 10 kW, as has happened in Dominion’s territory after the SCC allowed Dominion Virginia Power to impose similar standby fees a year ago.

Although a 10 kW system is bigger than the average Virginia home needs by itself, people with electric cars can find their demand exceeds that limit. Moreover, Dominion Virginia Power has signaled that it would like to impose standby charges on all of its solar customers, regardless of system size.

The actions of Virginia utilities and the SCC put the commonwealth in the thick of a nationwide battle over customer-owned, “distributed” solar. While most studies analyzing the value of solar have concluded that distributed solar benefits the public and the grid, utilities fear it will eat into their profit margins. They see Virginia as a good place to establish a precedent friendly to the utility viewpoint, due to the commonwealth’s history of allowing its utilities to dictate energy policy. So far, this episode proves them right.

Why standby charges are bogus

Utilities want solar owners to pay for grid access.  Photo credit: NREL.

Utilities want solar owners to pay for grid access. Photo credit: NREL.

Rooftop solar energy makes up a tiny fraction of the total electricity produced in America, but already utilities worry about a day when large numbers of their customers won’t need them any more. As renewable energy costs continue to tumble and the technology of battery storage improves, many residents and businesses may abandon their power utility to go it alone or form microgrids within their communities to control their own power.

Some utilities understand that this is the future and are looking for ways to turn these trends to their advantage. Others are doing everything they can to protect their turf, and progress (and the environment) be damned. They figure they can’t wind up on the wrong side of history if they stop history from happening.

Hence the attempt to throttle solar while it’s still little. Caps on system sizes, caps on total amounts of distributed generation, prohibitions against third-party power purchase agreements, restrictions on net metering: all of these are efforts to keep solar too small to matter, and too small to achieve the economies of scale that could lead to an upending of the central utility model.

The latest effort to squelch solar is through standby charges: fees imposed on net metering customers that compensate the utility for “standing by,” ready to sell grid-produced energy at night and on cloudy days. In 2012 in Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power won the right to charge customers with large residential systems (10-20 kilowatts) up to $60 per month—a charge that destroyed this market segment. This summer Dominion pressed its advantage, indicating in a submission to regulators that it will likely seek more standby charges on a broader class of solar customers.

Note that Virginia has less than 15 megawatts (MW) of solar installed across the state. Dominion Power alone has around 19,000 MW of coal, gas and nuclear. So the notion that net metering by solar customers has any perceptible effect on the grid or other customers is silly. The point of Dominion’s stand-by charges is to stifle the solar market, not cover costs.

This same debate played out this year in Arizona, which saw its solar industry install 719 MW in 2012—still a tiny percentage of that state’s total energy supply, but one that is growing fast enough to warrant the discussion. Last week the public utilities commission agreed to allow Arizona Public Service Company (APS) to charge its residential solar customers an average of $5 per month. The utility treated the ruling as a win, and indeed the charges might eventually add up to enough to cover APS’s attorney fees in the case. That’s more than can be said about Dominion’s standby charges.

Meanwhile the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has gotten into the act, drafting a model resolution insisting that net metering customers should have to pay their “fair share” of utility costs through measures like standby charges. Not incidentally, Dominion Power is a member of ALEC and sits on the energy and environment task force next to the fossil fuel shills from Heartland Institute.

But the “fair share” argument is bogus. Utilities weren’t set up to ensure Americans all paid their “fair share” of the costs of the electric grid. If they were, there would still be mountain communities without power today. Residents of cities and towns subsidized the cost of running power lines to far-flung rural homes inhabited by people who could never have afforded their “fair share” of this infrastructure.

Even today, city dwellers pay more than their “fair share” of transmission costs to subsidize people like me who live in leafy, sprawling suburbs and less-populated parts of the state. Anybody voting for an ALEC-style resolution about “fair shares” had better be willing to stick it to suburban and rural consumers.

There are other ways electricity rates aren’t “fair.” Dominion’s residential rates are structured so people who use less electricity pay more per kilowatt hour than those who use more—again, making it roughly a transfer of wealth from urban apartment dwellers to those with larger or less efficient homes elsewhere. The utility’s goal is to encourage the use of electricity, and compete more effectively with the gas company for heating. People paying their “fair share” just doesn’t enter into it.

And while we’re at it, if we were serious about subsidies we’d slap a tax on electricity made from fossil fuels to reflect the costs they impose on society. Asthma, heart disease, mercury poisoning, groundwater contamination, and of course, the dumping of carbon into the atmosphere—these are all costs of fossil fuel that ought to be included in power bills to make sure everyone is paying their “fair share.” People who install solar panels deserve a thank-you for their service to society, not standby charges based on bogus “fair share” claims.

The argument for standby charges is, pure and simple, an attempt by entrenched monopolies to block competition. The “fair share” argument is a red herring from utilities that don’t want a fair fight. And with good reason: they’re going to lose.