Virginia’s General Assembly likes solar energy. Will that be enough?

Emojione_1F31E.svgVirginia’s General Assembly broke new ground in February when it passed legislation declaring up to 500 megawatts of utility solar power “in the public interest.” The language will help projects gain regulatory approval from the State Corporation Commission, which has been hostile to renewable energy. Dominion Virginia Power wants to build up to 400 MW of solar by 2020.* If the utility follows through, Virginia will finally join the solar revolution underway across the U.S.

Emojione_umbrella.svgIt’s important to acknowledge the limitations of the legislation, though. It was written by and for Dominion, not for the solar industry or Virginia residents. The utility does not want its customers installing solar power for themselves or buying it from anyone else, hence the limitation to utility-owned projects of at least 1 MW. So people who want to see more distributed generation, especially customer-owned, rooftop solar, found little to cheer about in this legislation.

Twemoji_exclamation question.svgOthers took a glass-half-full view. For climate activists, all solar is good solar, and big projects produce more than little projects. It would take 4,000 houses, each with an average 5-kW system, to produce as much power as a single 20-MW project like the one Dominion plans for Remington, Virginia. (The Remington facility is the only solar project Dominion has identified so far in the commonwealth.)

But of course, if you can get 4,000 houses with solar in addition to a 20-MW solar farm, then you’ve got twice as much solar altogether. Glass totally full: insert your happy emoji here.

The optimists hope that success with utility-scale solar will demonstrate the value of the resource and lead to better policies for distributed solar as well. A look at the experience of other states shows that is not inevitable. States with policies that promote residential and commercial solar, like New York and New Jersey, see a lot of those projects. States that mainly incentivize utility ownership, like North Carolina and Nevada, haven’t seen much else.

Dominion unquestionably won this round in the General Assembly, getting a seal of approval for its own projects while locking out most of the competition. Only two bills passed this year lowering hurdles to customer-owned renewables, and neither of them help homeowners. One bill raises the project size limit on net-metered facilities from 500 kW to 1 MW, a change sought by Virginia’s universities and by the solar developer Secure Futures LLC, whose business model focuses on large nonprofit institutions. The other enables localities to help finance energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on commercial properties using what are known as property-assessed clean energy, or PACE, loans.

Many more bills sought by renewable energy advocates went down to defeat in the face of utility opposition, including things like a grant program and a community net-metering bill that could have had a transformational impact on the industry.

That leaves just one initiative that advocates will be watching closely to see if it produces any opportunities for customer-owned solar. Legislation establishing the Virginia Solar Development Authority, HB 2267 and others, says it will “support the development of the solar industry and solar energy projects

by developing programs that increase the availability of financing for solar energy projects, facilitate the increase of solar energy generation systems on public and private sector facilities in the Commonwealth, promote the growth of the Virginia solar industry, and provide a hub for collaboration between entities, both public and private, to partner on solar energy projects.”

The bill is a little vague as to just how all this will happen. The Authority has no regulatory power and no budget. Many of its duties involve finding money, as in the paragraph empowering it to help utilities deploy 400 MW of solar projects by “providing for the financing or assisting in the financing of the construction or purchase of such solar energy projects.”

Another provision, however, empowers the Authority to “identify and take steps to mitigate existing state and regulatory or administrative barriers to the development of the solar energy industry.” Of course, one of those barriers is the anti-competitive maneuvering of our utilities to protect their monopoly positions.

The Authority should perhaps take a lesson from the DEQ-facilitated Small Solar Working Group, which I helped form in 2013 with a goal of developing pro-solar legislative proposals. The problem we ran into was that utilities were determined to ensure we did not put forth any legislative proposals, and we had made the mistake of letting them into the group. If utility executives get appointed to the Solar Authority, it could be déjà vu all over again.

Delegate Tim Hugo, for one, thinks the Authority will lead to more distributed generation as well as utility solar. “The intent of the legislation is to create an opportunity to develop a broad range of projects including distributed customer owned generation and to help facilitate a solar industry in Virginia,” he told me.

Hugo, one of the sponsors of the Authority bill, is one of the Commerce and Labor committee members who helped defeat other bills sought by the solar industry. But if distributed solar is to thrive in Virginia, it will require legislators like Hugo to become its champions.

Hugo, a Republican, considers himself a staunch solar advocate, going back many years. “In 2007,” he reminded me, “I sponsored HB2708 dealing with net metering, which would require utilities to purchase excess electricity produced by a customer-generator.” Last year he sponsored bi-partisan legislation exempting from real and personal property taxes solar equipment that generates 20 megawatts or less, a change critical to the economics of commercial solar projects.

But relatively few legislators from either party are willing to oppose Dominion, and therein lies the rub. The company considers monopoly control its right, and it doesn’t yield an inch without getting something for it. On the other hand, this was a bad year in the press for Dominion. Editorial boards across the state lambasted the company over legislation that will let it shield excess profits for the next several years. The public, too, is irritated with the slow pace of solar, and it knows whom to blame. That provides an opening for pro-solar legislators. We’ll see if they take it.


*Dominion was the moving force behind this legislation, but it applies as well to Appalachian Power Company. When I asked an APCo lobbyist whether its passage means more solar in APCo’s future, he merely referred me to the company’s 2014 Integrated Resource Plan, written a year ago. It lays out plans for small additions of utility solar beginning in 2019, scaling up gradually to a cumulative total of 500 MW in 2028—or about half as much as North Carolina already has today.