Virginia utilities and advocates square off over net metered solar

Solar now employs more Virginians than coal, but utility efforts to roll back net metering threaten Virginia businesses that install rooftop solar. Here, staff of Mountain View Solar (in high-visibility clothing) and Secure Futures conduct commissioning tests for Albermarle High School’s solar installation. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.

Advocates of distributed solar energy in Virginia are watching nervously this summer as electric utilities and the solar industry negotiate the future of net metering, the policy that makes rooftop solar economically viable in a state with no other incentives.

Virginia utilities finally see the value of solar to themselves, which is good news for the solar businesses that build large projects. But the utilities’ enthusiasm does not extend to solar owned by their customers. Dominion Energy Virginia and its fellows see rooftop solar as a threat to their monopoly power that needs to be curtailed, not a contribution to our energy security that they should encourage. But by attacking net metering, they endanger the many small businesses whose bread-and-butter comes from the residential and commercial sector.

The utilities’ own solar plans are fairly modest compared to national trends, but they are practically revolutionary for a state with deep ties to fossil fuels. Dominion Energy Virginia proposes to add 240 MW of solar annually, presumably in addition to projects supplying corporate customers like Amazon. Appalachian Power is looking to add 25 MW of solar in Virginia or West Virginia by the end of 2019. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which serves most of Virginia’s rural electric cooperatives, announced contracts for two projects totaling 30 MW. (Dominion Energy immediately bought the projects.)

All this activity has helped to fuel a rapid rise in the number of solar jobs in Virginia. (In case you missed it, solar employs more Virginians than coal.) But utility projects represent only part of the potential market in Virginia, especially if residents and businesses are encouraged to invest in solar themselves.

The utilities’ hostility to customers generating their own electricity has led to barriers that hold back the market for distributed solar. These barriers include limits on system sizes, standby charges, program caps and challenges to third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs). (For a full discussion of these barriers, see my 2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy.)

Utilities would particularly like to do away with net metering, a program that allows solar owners to feed excess solar power to the grid during the day and then draw power from the grid when the sun isn’t shining, paying only for the net of the power drawn from the grid. Utilities say net metering results in solar owners not paying their fair share of grid upkeep. Solar advocates say everyone benefits when customers invest in solar.

“Value of solar” studies from other states largely support the advocates’ contention that solar owners provide more value to the grid and to their fellow customers than they get in return. Three years ago the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality facilitated the beginnings of a value of solar analysis for Virginia, but the utilities walked away when they didn’t like where it was headed. Without this kind of valuation, utilities and advocates are left talking past each other.

The future of net metering is now a subject for discussion by the Rubin Group, an informal, by-invitation-only committee formed by the utilities and solar industry members in 2016. The project is named for its moderator, Mark Rubin. Although barely a year old and lacking full stakeholder representation, the Rubin Group has achieved almost a quasi-legislative status with the blessing of the chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce and Labor Committees. Last year these committees passed only solar bills that had been negotiated through the Rubin Group (or in one case, that the House chairman himself had introduced), and committee members were discouraged from offering amendments.

But the Group’s lack of transparency and limited input was a mistake, Rubin has since acknowledged. This year the Group expanded to include the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. In addition, outsiders have been invited to participate in occasional conference calls and meetings.

At the first such meeting in June, Rubin said the Group would work on four other topics besides net metering: implementation of last year’s “community solar” legislation; addressing barriers to large utility-scale projects; meeting the needs of corporate purchasers; and land use issues.

But net metering was the hot-button concern, with most of the attendees urging action to expand opportunities for rooftop solar and remove current limits on net metering. By contrast, utility interests expressed a desire for “alternatives.”

A second stakeholder meeting in July further increased advocates’ concern. Participants report Rubin began the discussion of net metering by saying the Group believed “net metering as it is now operating in Virginia is unsustainable.” Such an assertion prejudges the issue, says Aaron Sutch of VA-SUN, and implies the existence of supporting data that the utilities simply don’t have. “Nearly every every study shows that net metered solar benefits all users of the electric grid by providing power when and where it’s needed most.”

In fact, he pointed out to Rubin in a later email, a 2016 Navigant study commissioned by Dominion “concludes that up to 2,000 MW of distributed solar can be integrated into the [Virginia] grid without major upgrades or system-wide issues,” and with cost savings to ratepayers of $75 per MWh.

Sierra Club volunteer Susan Stillman, who runs the Solarize program for the Town of Vienna, also wrote to the Rubin Group to express her concern that the entire discussion seems to be focused on limiting net metering as a way to discourage distributed solar. “No one ever said what aspect of net metering is not sustainable.  How do you solve a problem that you’ve not defined? Net metered solar in Virginia is minuscule so I’m hard pressed to understand that this is a technical issue and that the grid is being harmed.”

Virginia law caps net metered solar at 1% of a utility’s overall electric utility sales. There is no website to tell the public how much net metered solar currently exists—which in itself is a problem—but industry members say we are nowhere near the 1% limit today.

Stillman says net metering is critical to keeping the program simple enough for the average homeowner to understand. “The calculation that every prospective solar customer makes is ‘when will my system be paid off?’  Solar companies know how to approximate this payoff now to a reasonable level of accuracy, and net metering helps with this calculation.  When you change net metering so that customers don’t get full retail, a whole new level of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) is introduced making prospective solar customers more uncomfortable and less likely to move forward with the purchase.​”

Sutch and Stillman are members of the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, a group of solar industry members and advocates who are seeking to expand opportunities for residents and businesses to install solar. Alliance members have made protecting and expanding net metering their top priority this year. Unfortunately, they were not offered a seat at the Rubin Group table.

The Rubin Group is supposed to act only by consensus, and at least two of the members say they are committed to protecting the interests of the distributed solar community. SELC attorney Will Cleveland and Scott Thomasson of the advocacy group Vote Solar, who is also a board member of the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, have both said they disagreed with Rubin’s characterization of net metering as unsustainable. Indeed, says Cleveland, the problem with the net metering law is that it is too restrictive.

Utilities like Dominion Energy are used to getting what they want, and no doubt they see the Rubin Group as one more way to achieve their aims. But they’ve been doing very well with it. Last year the Rubin Group helped them expand their ability to build more utility scale solar at lower cost to themselves, for which they gave up nothing in return. This year, the Rubin Group is trying to help them some more through the work of the other subgroups. It seems reasonable that in exchange for all this help, they should return the favor and give small solar companies a chance to expand their businesses, too.

Virginia’s energy future is up for discussion this Wednesday in Arlington

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

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

Those of you in Northern Virginia might be interested in attending a screening of the film “The Future of Energy” at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse on Wednesday, May 25 at 7:30 p.m. I will be leading a discussion of energy issues and the future of renewable energy in Virginia following the movie.

“The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People” is billed as “a positive film about the renewable energy revolution,” and “the people and communities leading the way towards a renewable energy future.” You can watch the trailer on the website of the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse.

Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE) is hosting the screening. Tickets are $10, or $5 for students at the door. Doors open at 6:30, which is a good time to arrive if you want to order dinner and drinks and talk to some of the local environmental leaders who are attending.

ACE and the Sierra Club have teamed up on a campaign called “Ready for 100,” with a goal of leading Arlington and the city of Alexandria towards a goal of 100% renewable energy for the electric sector by 2035. ACE’s director, Elenor Hodges, and Dean Amel, Chair of the Mount Vernon Group of the Sierra Club, will be on hand to provide more information about the “Ready for 100” campaign. Arlington Energy Manager John Morrill will also be there to answer questions.

ACE is also working with VA-SUN on a new solar bulk-purchasing cooperative for Northern Virginia residents and businesses called the Potomac Solar Co-op and will have information available about it on Wednesday. An information session for the co-op is planned for June 8.

Arlington is already recognized for its leadership on clean energy, with groundbreaking projects like a net-zero-energy elementary school. But getting to 100% will take a truly determined, collective effort on the part of homeowners, businesses and local government. We will also likely need to see reforms to state policies and laws that currently present barriers to renewable energy. These state barriers affect all Virginians, so while Wednesday’s focus will be on Arlington, the discussion will be relevant to everyone who wants to see a clean energy future in Virginia.