Solar Power Trends (Clean Virginia, Part 8)

Jul 29, 2015

In the final installment of our occasional series “Clean Virginia,” WMRA’s Kara Lofton reports on the current solar trend, what it means for Virginia and how solar may change how we use energy.

From 2010 to 2015, solar power in Virginia has increased from less than one megawatt a year to more than 20. By the year 2020, new projects should increase Virginia solar energy production to more than 400 megawatts a year.

Tony Smith is professor of business at Eastern Mennonite University and co-owner of the Staunton-based solar company Secure Futures.

TONY SMITH: There’s tremendous momentum with solar and renewable energy just in the last few years. Look at, for example, the fact that in 2010, the single largest installation in Virginia was the one on EMU’s Hartzler Library at 104 kilowatts. It’s astonishing to think that five years ago that was the largest solar array in Virginia, because in the scheme of things, 104 kilowatts is considered a very small commercial project.

Now, Washington and Lee University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Albemarle Public Schools have also installed solar on their property. And Dominion Power, who will be by far the biggest contributor to solar in Virginia, has announced plans to build a 20-megawatt solar project in Fauquier County starting in 2016 and a long-term plan for installing 400 megawatts of solar in Virginia by 2020.

Dianne Corsello is the director of business development and generation for the Dominion Generation Group. She said Dominion is also developing a solar partnership program with commercial companies.

DIANNE CORSELLO: We are leasing rooftop space on commercial customer’s rooftops; business customers are leasing their rooftop space and some of their land to Dominion and we are building solar facilities.

The power produced from those solar facilities then flows back to Dominion’s grid and is distributed like any other source. Randolph Macon, Old Dominion and Virginia Union are all participating in Dominion’s solar partnership program.

But Erik Curren, co-founder of the community advocacy group Transition Staunton Augusta, would like to see such partnership programs expanded to include homeowners.

ERIK CURREN: If this PPA system -- power purchase agreement system -- was legal for everyone in Virginia, the cost of solar would drop tremendously. Because now a homeowner, instead of having to pay $40,000 to get photovoltaic panels on the roof, which sure you can finance that but that’s a big chunk of change for your average homeowner, instead of that you could just have a solar company come in, put the panels on your roof at no cost to you, they would own the panels on your roof and then they would sell you the electricity from those panels, and they could sell you as much power as you need, basically taking you off the grid if that’s what you wanted to do, and probably at less than you pay now for your grid power. So it’s really the best of both worlds, it’s getting clean energy from the sun at cheaper than you get dirty energy from coal and natural gas and nuclear.

But that kind of a vision may be a long time coming. For now, leasing commercial rooftops and creating solar parking lot canopies may be the answer to one of solar’s major challenges – it takes six to eight acres of land to produce a single megawatt of energy.

At this time, solar is still a very small portion of the overall energy production in Virginia. Even Dominion’s projected 400 megawatts of solar by 2020 will only power about 100,000 homes. The number of homes in Virginia is closer to 3.2 million.

CORSELLO: One of the drivers here is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The final regulations will be coming out this summer with regards to the Clean Power Plan, but it was very clear that renewables will need to be a part of the Clean Power Plan. 

EMU’s Smith says the shift toward more solar has been long coming and is due to a variety of factors, including growing public awareness about climate change, changing regulations and a decrease in the cost of solar panels themselves. And the benefits could go way beyond environmental concerns.

SMITH: That 2% would create 14,500 jobs, which is a staggering economic benefit to the state. So we have to keep in mind that we aren’t just talking about electricity and clean power, but we are talking about investment, job creation, economic opportunity, more resilient communities, many more opportunities for jobs that pay really good wages and that will support our economy well into the future.