COVID-19 throws a lemon at Virginia’s plan for an energy transition. It’s time for lemonade.

solar panels on a school roof

The solar panels on Wilson Middle School are saving money for Augusta County taxpayers. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.

In mid-March, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to transition our economy from fossil fuels to clean energy over the coming years. Two weeks later, Virginia shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the businesses whose very existence is now in peril are the energy efficiency companies and solar installers we will be counting on to get us off fossil fuels.

Home weatherization and energy efficiency programs have come to an almost complete halt in Virginia, including programs run by Dominion Energy Virginia. Nationwide, the energy efficiency sector has lost almost 70,000 jobs. Meanwhile, companies that install solar, especially rooftop systems, report plummeting sales. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that nationally, 55 percent of solar workers are already laid off or suffering cutbacks.

The timing seems terrible — although to be fair, there’s no good time for an economy-crushing, worldwide pandemic. Eventually, however, the virus will run its course or be defeated through vaccine or cure. At that point, we will face a choice: we can stagger blinking out into the sunlight aimlessly wondering now what?, or we can execute the well-developed plan we have spent these weeks and months formulating.

Let’s go with the second option.

First, it’s worth remembering that nothing happening now will change the trajectory of clean energy. Solar and wind had banner years in 2019, continuing their steady march to dominance. Wind has become the largest single source of electricity in two states, Iowa and Kansas. The island of Kauai in Hawaii is now 56 percent powered by renewable energy, mostly solar. Across the U.S. wind, solar and hydro produce more electricity than coal. Wind is the cheapest form of new electric generation nationally; solar takes pride of place in Virginia.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel is even more firmly on its way out. Six of the top seven U.S. coal companies have gone into bankruptcy since 2015. That was before the lockdown sent energy demand down, further hurting high-priced coal.

Fracked gas helped kill coal but is itself vulnerable to price competition from renewables. Odd as it sounds, the collapse in oil prices will make natural gas more expensive. That’s because oil producers in Texas and North Dakota are closing wells that produced natural gas along with oil. The tightening supply of gas may finally make fracking companies in Appalachia profitable, but it means higher prices for utilities. Wind and solar will just keep looking better.

The Trump administration is still trying futilely to hold back the tide, but the U.S. will get a lot farther riding the wave than struggling against it. Congressional leaders should declare the country “all in” on clean energy. Instead of bailing out the highly polluting fossil fuel industries, they should put that money to work creating more jobs and economic development — and actually doing something about climate change — with energy efficiency and renewables.

Congress should return the Investment Tax Credit for solar (and offshore wind) to the 30 percent level in effect last year and keep it there, instead of continuing the phase-out now in effect. Congress should also give solar owners the option of taking the credit as a cash grant, as it did during the last recession, and for the same reason: tax-based incentives are less useful in a recession, when companies can’t use the credits.

Virginia’s Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have a critical role to play in convincing their colleagues to support solar. So far neither is rising to the task.

On the state level, Northam did the right thing in signing this year’s energy legislation, allowing utilities and industry members to start planning for the future. But the Clean Economy Act gets wind and solar off to a very slow start; Dominion doesn’t have to build Virginia solar for five years yet. And though the new laws remove many policy constraints on customer-sited solar, they offer next to nothing in the way of financial incentives.

Governor Northam should make it clear he intends to make rooftop solar a priority for next year, along with projects on closed landfills, former coal mine areas, and other brownfields, with a special focus on areas hardest-hit economically. He can also encourage corporations that do business in Virginia to meet their sustainability goals with Virginia wind and solar, starting right now.

The governor should also prioritize building efficiency. Virginia will be adopting a new residential building code this year, and if past years are any indication, its energy efficiency provisions will fall short of the most recent model code standard. It’s up to the governor to make sure Virginia adopts the full code.

Local governments are already taking advantage of suddenly-empty buildings to accelerate maintenance and repairs. But it’s a good time to think bigger, with new financing tools available that make energy efficiency retrofits and solar facilities cash-positive right from the start.

Energy performance contracting allows the energy savings to pay for retrofits. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy keeps a list of pre-qualified energy service companies and offers expertise to help local government employees navigate the process.

This year’s legislation also greatly expanded local governments’ ability to finance on-site solar through third-party power purchase agreements, effective July 1. The PPAs are structured so that a school district, municipality or any commercial or non-profit customer can have a solar array installed at no cost, paying just for the energy produced.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for PPAs to install solar on more than a hundred sites, including schools and other government buildings. The county’s contract is “rideable,” which allows other counties and cities to piggyback, getting the same terms without the need for new contract negotiations.

Unfortunately, local governments in southwest Virginia are prevented from pursuing PPAs — not by state legislation, which allows it starting July 1, but by a contract with Appalachian Power that governs their electricity purchases from the utility. The contract is up for renewal this year; disgracefully, APCo is refusing to agree to new terms allowing the localities to use solar PPAs. APCo should back off, and let local governments in economically depressed southwest Virginia start saving money and supporting solar jobs this year.

Arlington County has gone beyond on-site solar, contracting for a share of a large solar farm in southern Virginia that will provide more than 80 percent of the electricity for county government operations. It’s a model any locality can adopt.

Virginia residents and businesses also have good reasons to focus on clean energy. The enforced down-time many people are experiencing means more time to research options, and companies are motivated to offer low prices on energy efficiency upgrades and rooftop solar.

The federal government offers more generous tax credits this year than next. Credits for residential energy efficiency equipment and a deduction for energy efficient commercial buildings expire at the end of this year.

The investment tax credit for solar (as well as for geothermal heat pumps, fuel cells and small wind turbines) stands at 26% for projects placed in operation this year, but it will drop to 22% in 2021. It falls to 10% for commercial customers and disappears altogether for residential customers in 2022. If Congress acts to raise the credit to 30%, buyers will get an even bigger boost. If it doesn’t, there will be a rush this year to get projects done by the end of the year, so customers should secure their place in line now.

Virginia nonprofits have helped hundreds of residents and businesses save money on solar and EV chargers through bulk purchasing programs. Virginia Solar United Neighbors just announced a series of virtual information sessions to promote the Arlington Solar EV Co-op. And LEAP, which closed operations temporarily due to the virus, reports it has restarted two programs, Solarize NOVA and Solarize Piedmont.

In an ideal world, the U.S. would already be well along in executing a comprehensive plan for a clean energy transition, one that includes job retraining for workers, and that resists counterproductive efforts to save the fossil fuel industry. But we can do the next best thing, and use the tools of government, the market and consumer choice to speed us in the right direction.

COVID-19 has handed all of us a big, fat lemon. Let’s make some lemonade.

 

A version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on April 30, 2020.

 

New laws clear away barriers to small solar projects

Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom,” Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not shown: the 50 guys with muskets making darn sure the lions don’t try anything.

Virginia General Assembly members have an expression for when opposing interests agree on a bill: they call it “peace in the valley.”

The phrase comes from a gospel song by Thomas A. Dorsey, written for Mahalia Jackson and then later sung by a bunch of white guys including Red Foley and Elvis Presley. The lyrics, written on the eve of World War II, speak of a longing for the peace of the afterlife, where “the bear will be gentle, the wolf will be tame, and the lion will lay down by the lamb.”

I’m not sure the General Assembly has ever inspired anything quite so wonderful as the song describes. More typically, a legislator uses the expression to indicate that a bunch of special interests, having duked it out amongst themselves, have now each gotten everything they thought they could get out of negotiations and so are offering up a compromise that legislators can adopt without having to trouble themselves too much with the details.

So, not exactly the peace of God, but still a pretty good state of affairs from the point of view of committee members who have thirty or forty other bills to deal with that day.

Peace rarely used to characterize bills supporting distributed solar generation. The lion had no reason to lie down by the lamb. Indeed, more typically the lamb was lunch.

But the November election shifted the balance of power in the General Assembly. At first it wasn’t clear how much power the lion and bear were going to have to cede. In fact, no one is quite sure even now where the balance of power lies, even after weeks of intense skirmishing finally produced the flawed but-still-transformational Clean Economy Act. The bill passed, and the parties all claimed victory, but anyone who thinks there might be peace in the energy valley is advised to stick around for next year.

The skirmishing over distributed solar was decidedly less intense. Advocates and utilities achieved peace on a number of provisions removing barriers to rooftop solar, dramatically increasing program caps for third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), raising the net metering cap, establishing shared solar programs, and making it easier for customers in homeowner’s associations to install solar.

Much work remains. Removing barriers is a necessary first step, but now the challenge is to make small-scale solar a priority for Virginia. The Clean Economy Act focused on cheap utility-scale projects, but an economy that runs primarily on renewables needs solar on places other than farmland. Getting to 100 percent carbon-free energy means putting solar on as many sunny homes and businesses as possible—not to mention government buildings, warehouses, data centers, parking lots, highway rest areas, closed landfills, brownfields, former mining sites and vacant land around airports.

Solar Freedom and the Clean Economy Act

The final version of the Solar Freedom bill, HB572 (Keam) and SB710(McClellan), made eight changes affecting customers of investor-owned utilities. Customers of electric cooperatives are excluded; a law passed last year addressed many of these issues.

• It raises the cap on the total amount of net metered solar allowed from 1 percent currently to 6 percent (broken out as 1 percent for low and moderate income customers and 5 percent for everyone else). This means customers installing rooftop solar will continue getting credit for surplus energy at the retail rate. When net-metered projects reach 3 percent, or in 2024 for APCo or 2025 for Dominion, the State Corporation Commission will conduct a solar study to determine the appropriate rate structure for new net metering customers. Existing net metering customers will not be affected.

• It raises the program cap on third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs). PPAs are the financing mechanism that schools, local governments, universities and other customers have been using to install solar on-site with no money down. The original program cap of 50 MW in Dominion territory was reached this fall, halting projects across the state. In Dominion territory, the limit will now go to 500 MW for jurisdictional customers (that’s most people) and 500 MW for non-jurisdictional customers (including local governments and public schools). The new cap in Appalachian Power territory is 40 MW for all customers, and there will be no limit in Old Dominion Power (Kentucky Utilities) territory. In addition, the legislation broadens who can take advantage of this program to any tax-exempt customer, and all other customers with projects over 50 kW.

• It increases the allowable size of net-metered commercial projects from 1 MW today to 3 MW.

• It increases the allowable size of residential net-metered projects to 25 kW, from 20 kW today.

• It removes standby charges for residential customers with solar facilities of less than 15 kW in Dominion territory, and removes them entirely for customers of Appalachian Power and Old Dominion Power.

• It allows residents of apartment buildings and condominiums in Dominion Energy and Old Dominion Power territories to share the output of on-site solar facilities.

• In Dominion territory, it allows customers to install enough solar to meet 150 percent of their previous year’s demand, recognizing the needs of growing families and EV owners. In APCo territory the limit remains at 100 percent of previous demand.

• Finally, it allows Fairfax County to move forward on a 5 MW solar project on a closed landfill, with the electricity serving government facilities. This will be the first such project in the state.

Solar Freedom overlaps with the Clean Economy Act, HB1526 (Sullivan) and SB851 (McClellan), on several of these provisions, including the net metering cap and PPAs. The Clean Economy Act also creates a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) focused on utility-scale projects, but with a small carve-out for distributed “wind, solar and anaerobic digestion resources of one megawatt or less located in the Commonwealth.” The carve-out is limited to 1 percent of Dominion’s RPS targets. This level is so modest it probably won’t act as a market stimulus, especially for projects not owned by Dominion itself, and the addition of anaerobic digestion should give anyone pause. Also, there is no carve-out in APCo territory.

The failure of the Clean Economy Act to drive small-scale solar growth is a missed opportunity that will need to be addressed in the future if the General Assembly truly wants to achieve a clean energy economy. I recommend taking away the appalling subsidies for paper companies and letting those millions fund distributed solar.

Community solar

The provision in Solar Freedom that allows residents of multifamily buildings to share onsite solar arrays looks favorable to customers but requires an SCC proceeding this year to determine the bill credit rate for subscribers. The rate “shall be set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” Further, “the Commission shall annually calculate the applicable bill credit rate as the effective retail rate of the customer’s rate class, which shall be inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charge, and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.”

While the Solar Freedom provision is restricted to multifamily residential buildings, the General Assembly also passed legislation more generally allowing for third-party owned community solar, rebranded as “shared solar.”

SB629 (Surovell) and HB1634 (Jones) instruct the SCC to set up a shared solar program for customers of Dominion and Old Dominion Power by Jan. 1, 2021. Shared solar projects must be no larger than 5 MW, can be owned by any for profit or nonprofit entity, and require at least three subscribers. The program is capped at a total of 150 MW, with an additional 50 MW possible if the utility demonstrates that 45 MW of shared solar has gone to low-income consumers.

The success of a shared solar program ultimately depends on whether project owners can make money and customers can save money. It remains to be seen whether that will happen. The provisions in these bills are less favorable to customers than the multifamily solar provisions of Solar Freedom. Customers will have to pay a minimum bill amount (waived for low-income customers), and there is no requirement that the bill credit rate be set at a rate than results in “robust project development.”

Finally, HB573 (Keam) requires that community solar projects owned by investor-owned utilities must include higher-cost facilities located in low-income areas.

Homeowner associations

Another successful piece of legislation is HB414 (Delaney) and SB504(Petersen), clarifying the respective rights of homeowners and HOAs when it comes to solar panels.

Since 2014, Virginia law has prohibited HOAs from banning solar panels unless the ban appears in the association’s recorded declaration. However, the law respects the right of HOAs to place “reasonable restrictions” on the size, place, and manner of placement of solar facilities on members’ property.

The fact that the law did not define “reasonable” turned out to be a problem. Some HOAs decided it was “reasonable” to insist solar panels be confined to the rear of a roof, whether there was sunshine back there or not. The result has been acrimony, added expense and blocked projects.

Aaron Sutch of Solar United Neighbors of Virginia estimates that since the 2014 legislation, HOAs have blocked over 300 Virginia installations with a value of over $6 million. Sutch negotiated with lobbyists for homeowners associations to achieve peace in this particular valley.

The new legislation provides that a restriction is not reasonable if it increases the cost of installation of the solar panels by 5 percent over the projected cost of the initially proposed installation, or reduces the energy production by 10 percent below the projected production. The owner must provide documentation prepared by an independent solar panel design specialist to show that the restriction is not reasonable by these criteria.

Other legislation

A few other bills should help customers finance solar panels.

B654 (Guy) authorizes DMME to sponsor a statewide financing program for commercial solar, energy efficiency and stormwater investments. The effect will be to boost the availability of low-interest financing through Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) in areas of the state where the locality has not developed a program of its own.

B754 (Marsden) authorizes (though it does not require) electric cooperatives to establish on-bill financing of energy efficiency and renewable energy. The program allows for the costs to be paid for out of the savings these improvements deliver. The coops asked for this authority, so presumably at least one plans to follow through.

Finally, B542 (Edwards) repeals the sunset date on crowdfunding provisions and provides fixes for obstacles to a financing approach that, to my knowledge, has been used only once for solar projects in Virginia.

This article appeared first in the Virginia Mercury on March 18,2020. 

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.