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New Rules May Limit Growth of Solar in Virginia

Most of us have a general sense of what solar panels do – they harness the sun’s light energy to produce electricity -- but we’re not used to seeing them on normal houses in normal neighborhoods in our area.  But that’s changing very rapidly in the Shenandoah Valley, thanks to plummeting prices for solar panels, and it’s making utility companies nervous. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler has this update on the rise of solar co-ops.

South Dogwood Drive near downtown Harrisonburg is a typical street: brick houses, tidy lawns, Hondas in the driveways. But then you come across one house that sticks out from the rest. A small solar array partially covers the shingled roof.

The home belongs to Carl Droms, a retired math professor from JMU. Yes, there’s a Prius in the driveway, but other than that, there’s nothing about this house that screams, “Extreme Planetary Consciousness.” Carl has thought about going solar for years because he was tired of being dependent on fossil fuel. But he wasn’t sure it was an option -- it’s too expensive, who do you talk to? Who installs it? – until he heard about a consortium of solar co-ops organized by the non-profit Virginia (VA) Sun.

CARL DROMS: When the solarize project came around that’s really when we decided, well, it made it easy. We didn’t have to go out and do all the research. 

VA Sun works to bring together homeowners in a given community who are interested in going solar. They’ve established co-ops in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

AARON SUTCH:  Our job is really not to tell you why to go solar but to tell you how…

That’s Aaron Sutch, a VA Sun representative who’s been hosting co-op information sessions across the region, from Charlottesville to Verona to Lexington.

SUTCH:  …If I have four 250 watt panels, which is 1,000 watts, that would be a 1 kilowatt system. Generally for a smaller residential sized system you’re looking at roughly about 3 kilowatts…

A solar co-op essentially coordinates the makeover to going solar. It screens the serious from the not-quite-ready, homeowners. It provides support and information and helps members solicit bids from area installers, one of which is ultimately selected by committee. Solarize Harrisonburg ended up going with Sigora Solar out of Waynesboro. Members sign a non-binding agreement to solarize their homes within a year. All this helps keep costs low because members essentially buy in bulk from one single installer within a limited time frame.

Carl’s 3 kilowatt system cost $10,000. He was able to take advantage of a 30 percent federal tax credit, bringing the cost down to $7,000. He figures it will take roughly 10 to 16 years in saved utility bills to recoup the cost of his investment.

DROMS:  It’s pretty neutral in terms of your day to day life. You plug things in, they still work. The only difference is when your electric bill comes in, it’s negative.

As you might expect, utilities don’t love issuing monthly bills with a negative balance. Multiply this by hundreds, if not thousands of solarized homes, and this could turn into what industry insiders have called “a death spiral” for utilities.

For example, Carl’s system is tied to the grid, meaning all the poles and wires within the city limits are owned by Harrisonburg Electric Commission, which buys all of its electricity from Dominion Virginia Power.  Any surplus electricity generated by his system is fed back into the grid, which he can tap into during times his system isn’t generating much power, such as at night or on cloudy days. Dominion credits customers for all this surplus electricity they generate. It’s called “net metering.”

The General Assembly passed legislation this year that makes it less likely solar homes will be able to generate surplus electricity; such grid-tie systems, says the bill, now have to be sized according to historical consumption. Which sounds fine. It doesn’t make economic sense to overdesign a system.

But there are scenarios in which a homeowner would want to overdesign a system. Such as, a couple in the planning phases of having children; kids suck up a lot of electricity.

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) is charged with writing the regulations for how to implement the new rule, which is pending.  

BRETT CRABLE:  If the panels are excessively oversized then everybody is exporting to the grid. Then yes, that does change the dynamic and may require upgrades that everybody would have to pay [for].

That’s Brett Crable, director of New Technology and Energy Conservation for Dominion Power. He points out that Dominion itself is going solar.

CRABLE:  We have committed to 400 megawatts by 2020. Our objective is to have a solar friendly grid and in doing so we want to make sure the grid operates safely, is reliable and that all our customers – those that have rooftop, those that don’t -- benefit from solar and doesn’t create challenges to their reliability.

Aaron Sutch is skeptical.

SUTCH:  Utility companies are pushing back with threats to net metering. As well as imposing barriers to the market access of solar here in Virginia. For example, residential power purchase agreements are not allowed. Community solar is not allowed. However, the solarize movements and the co-ops offer opportunities to push back against that, and to demonstrate that there’s a diverse constituency that wants to create jobs with solar and take control of their energy freedom.

For homeowners, in the meantime, the 30 percent federal tax credit is set to expire at the end of 2016.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag