Virginia's solar surge
By Keya Vakil
April 24, 2019

This is the final part of a three-part series examining the impact of climate change on the Commonwealth. The first part can be found here and the second part here.

You’ve seen the gleaming panels while you’re driving. Whether they’re affixed to the roofs of houses, displayed across front yards, or situated atop public buildings, the use of solar panels has exploded around the Commonwealth.

Just this Monday, Johns Hopkins University announced that beginning in 2021, roughly two-thirds of the electricity powering its campuses would come from a Virginia solar farm.

Dominion Energy also got in on the Earth Day festivities, announcing that it will direct the power generated by six new solar energy plants to Facebook to offset the company’s electricity demand at six data centers in Virginia and North Carolina. These projects are separate from two other Dominion solar facilities that the State Corporation Commission approved to help offset the electricity demand at Facebook’s planned data center in Henrico County.

These are just the latest examples of the solar boom occurring all across Virginia, which raises a question:

Why solar?

Solar energy is not only cheaper than coal, gas and other fossil fuels, but it’s also far better for the environment.

In October of 2018, the United Nations warned that we have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe as a result of global warming, and the reliance on fossil fuels is among the biggest causes of global warming.

While fossil fuels harm the climate, solar energy is a renewable energy that preserves the environment. In fact, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), from 2007 to 2017, Virginia’s solar and wind power plants prevented the emission of more than 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, more than 4,000 metric tons of sulfur dioxide, and over 2,000 metric tons of nitrogen oxides.

It’s not just environmentalists singing the praises of solar energy, either. Corporations are all-in on solar. Building new renewable energy is cheaper than running existing coal plants and prices on renewables continue to drop each year.

This makes investment in solar a no-brainer for companies, and this investment has led to hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country.

According to a new analysis from E2, a nonpartisan business group, almost every state in America saw an increase in clean energy jobs in 2018, resulting in a 3.6% growth in employment and 110,000 new net jobs.

There are 3.26 million clean energy jobs across the country and roughly 335,000 of these are in solar. In Virginia alone, there are nearly 4,000 solar jobs and as of the 4th quarter of 2018, Virginia had seen nearly $1 billion in solar investment across the state.

While the growth of solar in the Commonwealth has been impressive, environmental advocates say there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to the state’s solar energy laws.

Virginia lawmakers on solar

In March 2018, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill mandating the investment of more than $1 billion in energy efficiency, solar and wind energy, and electric grid modernization.

Lawmakers followed that up this year by passing legislation that allows customers of electric cooperatives in Virginia to expand their solar footprint. This will allow co-op members to save on electric bills by selling excess solar energy they create back to the co-op.

The General Assembly also passed another bill that makes it possible for public schools with solar panels to sell their excess energy into the power grid, which will not only cut energy costs for schools, but also provides an additional funding source.

A handful of other bills also passed, including one that established rebate programs for low and moderate-income households and another that requires Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to offer solar and energy efficiency incentives to low-income, elderly and disabled customers.

But the Republican-controlled General Assembly did not pass the most groundbreaking legislation, the Solar Freedom bills from Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), Sen. Jennifer McLellan (D-Richmond) and Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke).

The Solar Freedom legislation would have removed eight barriers to renewable energy installations by utility customers, making it easier for residents and businesses to implement solar for their own use.

The bills were supported by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Power for the People Virginia and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, among other groups.

These advocates called for the General Assembly to pass the Solar Freedom bills, as well as other legislation that benefited customers instead of utilities.

Ultimately, the House version of the bill was defeated in the Commerce and Labor committee on an 8-7 vote that along partisan lines. The Senate version was rejected in the Commerce and Labor committee on a 10-3 party-line vote.

The House Commerce and Labor subcommittee killed several other customer-oriented solar bills as well, causing some activists to wonder whether Republicans were voting based on Dominion’s opposition to the bills.

The future

There’s no question that solar will continue to grow in Virginia.

Between the enormous cost savings, various incentives and the significant environmental benefits of solar energy, there’s no stopping this boom.

But the benefits of solar have not been equally distributed thus far, and environmental advocates insist they’ll continue to push for the General Assembly to adopt measures that not only benefit utility companies, but everyday Virginians.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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