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10 Solar Energy Proposals in Virginia to Watch During its Short 2015 General Assembly

Jim Pierobon's picture
Owner, Pierobon & Partners LLC

Former Chief Energy Writer and Correspondent for the Houston Chronicle; SVP for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide; External communications chief for the American Council On Renewable Energy...

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  • Jan 31, 2015
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solar energy legislation in virginia

It would take a hermit not to recognize the pent-up demand for solar energy throughout much of the Commonwealth of Virginia. While states such as North Carolina and Georgia are seeing significant growth, Virginia lags far behind and is all but ignoring the opportunity to diversify its economy with cleaner energy sources, led by solar and energy efficiency.

But more so than ever before, Virginia can catch up. Companies making solar work for homeowners and businesses in nearby states want to make it work in Virginia too.  No fewer than 25 companies are fueling stakeholder education and lobbying efforts to bring economic and environmental sustainability to Virginia.  

National and large regional companies such as Solar City, Trane, OPOWER, Standard Solar, Sol Systems and the Clean Energy Collective, D+R International , SREC Trade and Nextility have been lobbying in the state capital of Richmond since the 2015 General Assembly opened January 14. They have been joined by Apex Clean Energy, Solar Energy Services, CHP Energy Solutions, Green Brilliance and Prospect Solar whose operations to date have mostly focused on Maryland and Washington, DC.

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[  These 25 companies, four coalitions / non-profits and hundreds of clean energy small busineses, entrepreneurs and sole proprietors see the most potential yet for diversifying the economy of Virginia with sustainable energy programs and technologies. Logos courtesy of Virginia Clean Energy Lobby Day at http://vaceld.org  ]

Next Tuesday, hundreds of these companies’ executives – including several from Virginia utilities — will join entrepreneurs, small businesses, citizen advocates and their allies in a show of force by canvassing lawmakers on the Commerce and Labor committees in the Senate and House of Delegates pressing for passage of several bills.

Here is my admittedly subjective list of the 10 potentially most impactful solar bills. More on other energy bills later.  I’m drawing largely from the General Assembly’s legislative information service online, legislative tracking by the Virginia Advanced Energy Industries Coalition, first-hand reports by lobbyists and analyses by Ivy Main of McLean, Virginia. Main is the most credible watch dog of energy and climate bills vis a vis the dominant monopoly electric utility in the state, Dominion Virginia Power. You can catch her musings on her blog, Power for the People VA.

Net Metering for Solar Energy Systems

The maximum size of a commercial solar project eligible for net metering would increase from 500 kilowatts (kW) currently to 2 megawatts (MW) under at least four bills: SB 833 and SB 764 (lead sponsor: Sen. John Edwards), HB 1950 (Del. Jennifer McClellan), and HB 1912 (Del. Alfonso Lopez).  Solar installers in-state have been calling for this increase for years. Dominion Virginia Power (from here forward, “Dominion”) has used the 500 kW cap, in effect, to justify NOT hiring Virginia companies to build solar projects. It requires experience with systems — guess what – of at least 1 MW and up.

Utility Standby Charges on Solar Energy Systems

The maximum size of a residential solar system would increase from 20 kW to 40 kW if HB 1622 (Del. Richard Sullivan) passes in its current form. As Main notes, however, “it does nothing to limit the standby charges utilities can charge for residential projects over 10 kW. Given that these charges are so punitive as to kill the projects, raising the cap wouldn’t create new market opportunities unless it is accompanied by a limit on the amount of standby charges that utilities can tack on.”

Value of Solar Analysis

Current law allowing utilities to impose standby charges on residential and agricultural customers with systems over 10 kW would be amended by HB 1911 (Lopez) with the requirement that the State Corporation Commission (SCC) conduct a value of solar analysis prior to approving the charges.

What comes from such an analysis could help — or further suppress — customer-owned solar systems. An analytical framework was developed last summer by a “Solar Stakeholder Group” with inputs from citizens, academics, the solar industry and utilities. But when the utilities saw how it might hurt their monopoly interests, they backed out.

Community Energy Systems

Community energy  – where several parties could own part of a solar or wind energy system meeting certain criteria and earn credits on their home electricity bills – would get a boost if HB 1636 (Del. Randall Minchew) becomes law. It would allow net metering credits for system owners.  This bill also seeks to raise the limit on commercial solar projects eligible for net metering to 2 MW. Disclosure: Delegate Minchew serves the Leesburg district I reside in

A bill related to HB 1636 would enable community organizations with 10 or more subscribers to benefit from net metering but with this catch: HB 1729 (Sullivan) would permit the utility to impose “a reasonable charge” as determined by the SCC to cover the utility’s costs of delivering to the subscriber’s premises the electricity generated by the community system.

 “Boy, we’ve seen that movie before,” Main reacted. “Given what we’ve seen the SCC do with standby charges, the bill should be amended to put a cap on the amount of that “reasonable charge” so legislators know they aren’t writing a blank check,” she said.

Community Net Metering for Municipalities

Local governments would be authorized to use net metering for municipal buildings on renewable energy projects (not just solar) up to 5 MW under SB 350 (Edwards). It would allow a form of community net metering targeted to condominiums, apartment buildings, homeowner associations with a renewable energy facility located on land owned by the association. Importantly, these customers would be exempt from standby charges.

Carol Davis, Sustainability Manager for the Town of Blacksburg, told me the town is “keenly interested in pursuing a municipal solar array but we’re hamstrung by the lack of supportive net metering policies. If something like the agriculture net metering rule applied to municipal governments, we could take a very big step in greening our municipal energy use, support our local solar industry and doing our part to reduce carbon pollution.”

Large-Scale Solar Energy Now in the Public Interest?

After all these years with states such as North Carolina and Georgia – not exactly the greenest states in the Union – making significant progress toward solar, comes now HB 2219 (Del. Joe Yost). The bill declares solar to be “in the public interest” for Dominion Virginia Power or Appalachian Power to build up to 500 MW of solar power each.

This is declare – finally — that solar power is in the public interest and yes, these utilities should start building it within the state. This while their parent companies are busy investing in solar outside of Virginia.

“The magic words – ‘in the public interest’ — lets (utilities) escape the corner they backed themselves into,” says Main. That SCC has long asserted the public interest requires the lowest cost energy regardless of the consequences to public health, the environment, national security, and the economy.

Two things to watch with HB 2219, according to Main: its effect on ratepayers and the solar industry. “Dominion’s previous solar efforts have cost well above market rates.” In addition, Dominion has hired only out-of-state companies to build its in-state solar projects.

 “Virginia ratepayers could save money and the state could build more solar,” Main said, “if legislation simply required the utilities to buy 500 MW of solar, and let the market decide who builds it. But of course, that’s (not) how things work in Virginia.”

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Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jan 30, 2015

 

Is this the same Virginia whose attorney general, Cuccinelli, launched an attach on climate scientist Micheal Mann for daring to expose what an aberation the current warming trend is? And then ran for governor….

I get the impression the coal barrons stll dominate the place.

 

Jim Pierobon's picture
Thank Jim for the Post!
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