The central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is rapidly becoming a hot spot for solar cooperatives, as new alternative energy opportunities attract a wide cross-section of homeowners eager to strike out on their own with renewable electricity.
The Mountain & Valley Solar Co-op closed itself to new members on July 19, capping out at 118 households in the western portions of Augusta and Rockingham counties.
“The Valley is the epicenter of our success,” said Aaron Sutch, program director of VA Sun, which put the Valley group together. The Richmond-based nonprofit, now rebranded as Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, offers education and technical support for budding solar co-ops across the state.
“All types of people go solar,” Sutch said. “We get conservatives, libertarians, people who don’t subscribe to climate science. What we’ve found is that solar is a really big tent that a lot of different people can fit under.”
With 18 co-ops established across the state from the coast to the mountains, and with three more in the works, Virginia is harnessing more of the sun’s energy. The state’s solar capacity grew nearly 26 percent in the last year to 241.5 megawatts, with 24,000 homes getting power from the sun, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
And solar jobs in Virginia have increased more than 65 percent in the last year, according to Todd Haymore, the state secretary of commerce and trade.
But for all of this rapid progress, solar accounts for only about 0.1 percent of the state’s electricity. While Dominion Energy and other power companies in the state are betting big on solar arrays, and have been ever since the Obama administration unveiled its Clean Power Plan, they’re not as amenable to individual customers going off their grid.
Solar United Neighbors urges its clients to voice their support for alternative energy with their representatives in Richmond.
The nonprofit’s “Virginia Declaration of Solar Rights” urges consumers to press for the rejection of several state policies that it says are limiting the growth of solar energy there. Among them are a 1-percent cap on all solar power in the state’s electrical grid, and a prohibition on community or “shared” solar. In some areas, there’s also a prohibition on third-party leasing for residences, limiting the ability to install rooftop solar panels for little or no upfront costs. Additionally, there are size constraints on residential solar arrays themselves, and homeowners in the service territories of Dominion and Appalachian Power are required to pay those companies a “standby charge.”
Dominion spokesperson Daisy Pridgen says that for Dominion, the standby charge only applies to residences that consume more than 10,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) annually. The average residential electrical consumption across the country in 2015 was between 6,166 and 15,435 kWh, the U.S. Department of Energy reports.
Bill Murray, vice president of state and electric public policy at Dominion, didn’t answer when asked if the company had lobbied the General Assembly on behalf of solar-limiting measures, but noted that two had passed by wide majorities and one unanimously.
“Dominion Energy is committed to keeping the lights on while keeping rates low,” spokeswoman Pridgen said, “and has been able to achieve this while transitioning to cleaner generating sources such as solar.”
Still, some can’t pass up the chance to get power from the sun.
Sandy and Joe Greene of Mt. Solon, in western Augusta County, are members of the Mountain-Valley Co-op. The Greenes have 26 photovoltaic panels on a barn roof supplying electricity for their home, an electric car and riding mower. They also have a “Sunrnr” — a portable solar generator from a company based in Augusta County — at their nearby summer cabin in the woods.
“Since solar panels were installed on our barn in 2012,” Sandy Greene said, “they have been silently capturing all the electrical energy needed to power our house, car and mower during the day, and sending the extra back onto the grid.”
Solar United Neighbors isn’t working toward the massive “solar farms” that cover thousands of acres of desert out West. Virginia’s largest solar installation thus far, expected to power 900 residences by the end of the year, is being built in Danville.
Instead, the focus is on “distributed energy” designed for private homes and small businesses. This is accomplished through co-ops leveraging an economics of scale. By holding public information sessions and reaching out to community leaders, the nonprofit works to connect a sizable number of customers in a concentrated area with a single solar installation business, so they can bargain for the best collective price.
Buying in bulk, as with anything else, can significantly reduce the price of solar installations, which in Virginia typically run about $11,000 for a medium-size home. Approaching a panel installer as an educated group of potential customers can yield a discount, of around 15 percent, according to Sandy Greene.
On top of such price breaks, steep declines in the cost of solar panels have been a major consumer draw. But community outreach has been just as critical in winning over homeowners in rural areas like the Valley. The Mountain-Valley co-op grew through word-of-mouth from volunteer “solar ambassadors” like the Greenes.
“I spoke at civic groups, libraries, arranged meetings and tours,” Sandy Greene said. “Solar power is teaching us about a conservation future where we can be comfortable, save money and burn fewer fossil fuels.”
Fellow Mountain-Valley ambassadors Chris and Ralph Bolgiano didn’t need an introduction to the benefits of solar energy. They’re on their second installation of photovoltaic panels. To help cover the costs, the Bolgianos used the state income tax credit they earned by placing their 100-acre farm in a conservation easement.
“Our first set of panels were placed on the peak of the roof,” Chris said, but the next winter on their farm at the foot of the Alleghenies—with 5-degree temperatures and several feet of snow covering the panels—severely limited their energy production. “It was cold,” Chris recalled with a laugh. Another issue was melting snow suddenly sloughing off and, at least once, partially burying a visitor at the front door.
The new panels, only about a third as expensive as the first ones, are on a convenient outside deck, easily cleanable by broom. “There’s really no upkeep to speak of,” Chris said, except maybe a hosing down if the pollen’s high. Since the new placement, the panels have failed Chris and Ralph only once: During the violent derecho of 2012, a line of intense windstorms that knocked out their panels while also depriving 2.5 million people of conventional power in Virginia.
Chris refers to her solar system, which includes lithium-ion batteries for nights and rainy days, as making her and her husband “absolutely self-reliant,” which she considers a welcome sensation in a state where fossil fuel retains a whopping competitive edge in infrastructure and consumer base.
With a boost from satisfied co-op members like the Greenes and Bolgianos, Virginia’s solar power industry is looking to break out of Virginia’s policy constraints and capture a bigger share of the energy market.