In November, 18 major companies signed a letter to Virginia lawmakers and the State Corporation Commission that called for more renewable energy options in the state, which has lagged behind neighbors such as North Carolina in solar development and is seen as largely closed to competition from non-utility providers looking to sell renewable electricity to business and residential customers.
“There’s a lot of regulatory uncertainty that may be stifling the development of a lot of solar projects in Virginia,” said Will Reisinger, a former assistant attorney general and a lawyer with GreeneHurlocker who represents solar developers and renewable trade associations.
That closed door may budge open a little during the 2017 General Assembly session as a result of months of meetings between utility companies, electric cooperatives and renewable power industry representatives.
Mark Rubin, executive director of the Virginia Center for Consensus Building at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has been mediating the meetings between Dominion Virginia Power; Appalachian Power; the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia Solar Energy Industry Association; and other parties, said four pieces of legislation that had yet to be filed as of the end of last week are broadly aimed at spurring more solar development. The exact language of the bills was still being developed.
“These folks have been on different sides for a number of years around a lot of these bills, and I think what they decided was if they get in a room with a little bit of help, they could pool their expertise and try to solve the problems that have been keeping them apart,” Rubin said.
The first piece could propose a three-year pilot program for utility-administered community solar projects, which are solar arrays that provide power and other potential benefits to multiple members of a given neighborhood or community.
Rubin said the idea is for the utilities to issue requests for proposals for projects generally under 2 megawatts and solicit subscribers. Dominion is committing to 25 megawatts worth of community solar, and Appalachian Power has committed to 4 megawatts. A single megawatt, equal to 1 million watts, of solar energy is enough to power about 164 homes, though that may vary depending on average sunshine, household consumption, temperature and wind, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Rubin couldn’t say the program might mean a reduction in billing costs for customers who sign up.
“The notion is that those people who want to have solar power as opposed to power generated by other means would now be able to have the programs. The goal is to increase the use of solar,” he said.
“While the cost has gone down significantly for solar, I’m not sure that it’s cheaper than what you would get by being a regular customer.”
A separate bill filed last year by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, to create community solar gardens owned by subscriber organizations that would sell excess generation back to utilities through “net metering,” in which customers with renewable generation connected to the grid pay only for their net usage, was continued to this year’s session.
The additional pieces of the legislative package that Rubin helped broker also will include an agricultural net metering bill that will give farmers the ability to use up to 25 percent of their land for solar, up to 1.5 megawatts of generation and no more than 150 percent of the farm’s power load, Rubin said.
For large-scale solar projects, the package is expected to include a modification that extends the limit for eligibility for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s permit-by-rule procedures, a streamlined regulatory process for renewable energy infrastructure, from 100 megawatts to 150 megawatts.
“The general thought is it would be more efficient and allow more projects to go through more quickly,” Rubin said.
The last bill would create a profit margin for power-purchase agreements for utilities, intended as an enticement for utilities to buy renewable power from third-party developers.
“If there’s some financial incentive for the utility, they’ll participate in these more,” Rubin said.
Legislation dealing with rooftop solar will have to wait, however. In Dominion’s service area, which includes much of the state, a customer who wants to purchase 100 percent renewable energy from a third-party supplier must use Dominion’s pilot program, which is limited to a minimum of 50 kilowatts and a maximum of 1 megawatt, or the third-party supplier must provide 100 percent of the load requirements.
“The one thing our group couldn’t get to consensus on this year is rooftop, so there are no bills dealing with rooftop,” Rubin said. “The hope is we will reconvene after the session and take a good whack at the rooftop.
“It’s a very complex issue. We agreed on what we could agree on, and we agreed to keep talking about other issues, and that was one of them: that general sense of how you reform net metering to work taking into account everybody’s interest.”
Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association, did not return a call seeking comment.