When Will State Officials Authorize Rooftop Solar Options?

solarinstall2The “fix is in” for dealing with solar energy during the 2017 session of the General Assembly.  It’s not a good deal for homeowners or small businesses.

The 2017 General Assembly game plan is to endorse a deal cut by investor-owned utilities (Dominion, Appalachian Power) and the rich farmers:
– the utilities will get to control efforts to build community solar systems.  No options will be provided for community-owned solar systems, in addition to utility-owned systems.
– electricity delivered from new utility-owned systems could be priced at current rates charged by the big utilities, or even at pay-a-premium costs
– no Power Purchase Agreements (PPA’s) will be authorized.  Homeowners who can afford $10-25,000 to install their own rooftop system can continue to do so, but the state will continue to block business deals that involve third-party financing of the costs to install rooftop solar. Virginia will remain closed to businesses willing to invest in solar installations on individual homes.

Bills to make it easier to install solar panels on rooftops of typical homeowners were blocked by the 2016 General Assembly. Proposed legislation involving solar energy must be passed by the Commerce and Labor Committee in the House of Delegates and the State Senate. The committee chairs blocked those bills, claiming the issue required more discussion.

Later in 2016, that discussion was held – in private.

A lawyer, Mark Rubin led negotiations between the two major for-profit utilities in Virginia (Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power) and one group of farmers (Powered by Facts). The Virginia Solar Energy Industry Association also got to participate.

The “Rubin Group” brokered a deal that satisfies the few large farmers involved on one side, and the large utilities on the other side. Small farmers, small businesses, and every homeowner in Virginia was left out of the deal.

The Rubin Group deal would continue to block installation of solar panels on rooftops of typical homeowners.

The Rubin Group deal would continue to block businesses from installing solar on rooftops for free, and then having homeowners pay the business (not the utility company) for electricity generated by solar panels on the homeowner’s roof.

Sure, the State Corporation Commission does allow homeowners to buy/install their own solar panels, but that costs $10-20,000 per house. Many more homeowners could switch to solar power – but only if the state authorized Power Purchase Agreements, and allowed companies other than the utilities to install solar systems and get repaid over the years that panels produce renewable energy.

Also, about half the rooftops in Virginia are not suitable for solar panels, because the roofs face in the wrong direction or are shaded by trees. Some states allow community solar systems, so the houses in a neighborhood without tree problems could install extra solar panels. In community solar deals, the neighbors with shaded roofs help pay for the system and share in the credits aganst their electrical bill.

Joining a community solar partnership is not for everyone – but in Virginia, it’s not even an option for anyone. The state claims to be “open for business” – but if that business involves solar systems, then Virginia’s laws and regulations make red tape in Washington look minor.

One of the major barriers to homeowner solar is State Senator Frank Wagner, who chairs the Commerce and Labor Committee in the State Senate. He is the cork in the bottle blocking the ability of homeowners and small businesses to install solar panels on houses.

In 2016, Sen. Wagner and his equivalent committee chair in the House of Delegates (Del. Terry Kilgore) blocked numerous bills.

Sen. Wagner is running for governor in 2017, so he is exposed to hearing from people other than Dominion Virginia Power’s lobbyists.   So are 100 members of the House of Delegates.  The fix may be in for 2017, but there’s a chance that public pressure to expand solar options, expressed to candidates during the 2017 campaign season, could affect future decisions in the General Assembly.

If you want to push for solar of rooftops, in addition to whatever solar the utilities and a few big farmers find to their advantage, then take a look at “HB 618 – Distributed electric generation; establishment of community solar gardens” (for community solar) and “HB 1286 Distributed and renewable generation of electric energy; net energy metering” (for Power Purchase Agreements).

A more-detailed explanation of the solar opportunity – and the barriers imposed by state officials – is available on the Power For the People VA blogBacon’s Rebellion blog and Southeast Energy News.

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