Expanding Access to Shared Solar Initiatives Under Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Vision

Virginia Solar Expansion

In Virginia, the eagerly anticipated signatures of Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin hover over two bills poised to broaden public access to shared solar initiatives.

Shared solar presents a pioneering avenue where solar developers extend opportunities to individuals unable to accommodate solar panels on their premises. These individuals can partake by subscribing to a fee structure that grants them access to energy generated by these communal facilities. It’s imperative to note that these facilities are capped at a maximum output of five megawatts.

In 2022, Dominion Energy unveiled a groundbreaking initiative tailored for its customers, aiming to cater to property owners grappling with roofs unsuitable for solar panels or residing in areas deprived of adequate sunlight for electricity generation.

Initially capped at 150 megawatts, the program necessitated a minimum bill charge, earmarked to defray distribution and transmission expenses. However, exemptions were granted to low-income participants, absolving them from these charges.

Bridging the Participation Gap – Proposed Legislation to Expand Solar Initiatives in Virginia

Despite its promising inception, after two years, participation has predominantly been among low-income subscribers, underscoring a gap in broader engagement with the program.

This year’s proposed legislation aims to enlarge the scope of jobs permissible under the shared solar initiative within Dominion’s jurisdiction. Additionally, there are provisions included to potentially press the minimum cost. A unique proposal aims to build a divided solar initiative in the area served by Appalachian Power Company, encompassing Southwest Virginia.

Delegate Rip Sullivan, who sponsored a bill aimed at revising Dominion’s program, highlighted that the initial implementation of the joint solar initiative attracted solar developers from outside Virginia. The surge of developers has led to job growth and broader access to sustainable energy root throughout the state. Sen. Scott Surovell, representing Fairfax, introduced Sullivan’s companion bill, as well as a proposal to start a solar program with Appalachian Power.

In his 2022 energy strategy, Youngkin advocated for the elimination of obstacles hindering the proliferation of smaller solar projects across the grid, including shared solar initiatives.

Christian Martinez, spokesperson for Youngkin, remarked, “The Governor is carefully evaluating the proposed legislation and budgetary provisions submitted for his approval.” Martinez added, “As outlined in the All-American, All-of-the-Above Energy Plan, the Governor advocates for sensible energy policies, which entail flexibility within our laws and regulations to address the growing energy needs of Virginians and encourage innovative energy solutions.”

‘Incremental progress’

Based on documents filed with Dominion’s regulatory body, the State Corporation Commission, the shared solar initiative of Dominion reached its capacity in May of the previous year.
The commission possesses the authority to extend the program by an additional 50 megawatts, contingent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions. Specifically, once it is confirmed that at least 30% of this capacity, equivalent to 45 megawatts, has been allocated to low-income customers. However, a pending case with regulators is yet to decide on this expansion.
Initially, this year’s proposed bills aimed to significantly enlarge the project, allowing for a capacity equivalent to 10% of Dominion’s peak load. However, there were revisions made, resulting in the program’s expansion being limited to 200 megawatts. Nevertheless, there remains an opportunity for further enhancement in energy provision.

Expanding Solar Access – Empowering Low-Income Subscribers through Legislative Amendments

According to statutory regulations, when users have subscribed to 90% of the 200-megawatt capacity, the commission has the authority to rise the project by an additional 150 megawatts. Furthermore, up to 50% of this extra capacity can be reserved for low-income customers.
Charlie Coggeshall, serving as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of the CCSA, expressed his perspective on the outcome, portraying it as a positive move in market development. He elaborated on the extensive negotiations required to reach an acceptable consensus, underlining the magnitude of compromise involved.
So, this bill shakes things up for Dominion, telling the SCC to think about shared solar perks when figuring out the minimum bill.

Revisiting Minimum Bills – Implications for Shared Solar Subscribers in Virginia

At present, Dominion asserts that the minimum bill, typically set at $55.10, is crucial to cover the expenses associated with distributing and transmitting electricity through the grid to consumers, even if the source is from shared solar facilities located miles away.
According to the utility’s argument, eliminating the minimum bill would result in shared solar subscribers enjoying reduced bills due to renewable energy usage, while other customers bear the burden of maintaining the grid.
That typical $55.10 fee acts as a hurdle for individuals considering subscribing to shared solar, as it could offset any potential energy savings, noted Josephus Allmond, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. This is especially true for those who may not have the financial means, which encompasses a significant portion of Virginians.
Additionally, the bill contains provisions for analyzing other advantages, such as renewable energy credits (RECs). These RECs are required to be provided to Dominion by solar project developers, who in turn must purchase them to fulfill the renewable energy portfolio standards outlined in the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

Assessing Shared Solar: Balancing Utility and Ratepayer Interests in Virginia

A report published by CSSA prior to the session revealed that both the utility and ratepayers stand to benefit from an extended shared solar initiative, partly by diminishing the necessity for constructing additional power generation facilities.
Furthermore, Senator Surovell emphasized the minimal externalities associated with solar energy, such as cancer, pollution, and climate change. He stressed the importance of factoring in these benefits when considering reductions to the minimum bill.
Despite the bill advancing through the legislature, certain lawmakers, including Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, expressed opposition, contending that the new minimum bill calculation remains elusive to quantify the benefits accrued to the rate base, particularly concerning aspects such as climate change.

Collaboration and Expansion – Empowering Shared Solar Initiatives in Virginia

During testimony on earlier iterations of the bill, Katharine Bond, Vice President for Public Policy & State Affairs at Dominion, expressed concerns about the completion of projects in the initial phase of the program before its expansion. However, during a hearing on Feb. 9 before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, Bond affirmed the utility’s endorsement of the bill. She highlighted the provision within the bill that empowers the SCC to ensure that shared solar participants contribute equitably and mitigate cost shifts to non-participating customers.
Another provision arising from this session is the establishment of a workgroup tasked with determining the extent and structure of incentives for shared solar projects, whether they are situated on rooftops or on previously disturbed lands such as former coal mines, commonly referred to as brownfields. Bills distinct from those proposed by Sullivan and Surovell, which seek to expand these incentives, currently await the governor’s signature.
“We believe that focusing more on these smaller projects is essential in preserving valuable farmland and forestland,” remarked Allmond during committee testimony.

A new Appalachian Power program

In a groundbreaking move, the distinct legislation proposed by Surovell introduces an entirely fresh initiative tailored for the Appalachian Power Company, capped at 50 megawatts.
Peter Anderson, serving as the director of state energy policy at Appalachian Voices, conveyed a reaction akin to Coggeshall’s regarding the significance of the bill’s passage, indicating alignment in their views
“Communities in Southwest Virginia have endured prolonged anticipation for access to communal solar resources, and the initiation of this program will serve as tangible evidence and a cornerstone for future endeavors,” expressed Anderson.
A stipulated minimum bill will be incorporated into the Appalachian Power program, its precise value subject to determination by the SCC, mirroring the process undertaken for the Dominion program, while integrating novel calculations. However, a notable departure in the APCo program lies in the absence of an exemption for low-income customers from this cost, instead offering them a 10% discount.
“We had hoped for a more expansive program and an exemption from minimum bills in the new APCo program to underscore the accessibility of these smaller, decentralized solar installations to every Virginian,” remarked Anderson. He noted that his organization is aware of several APCo customers expressing interest in the program, along with at least one nonprofit contemplating subscription, and local governments advocating for the initiative.

Ensuring Equity – Balancing Costs and Participation in Shared Solar Programs

In the absence of the low-income exemption, Coggeshall remarked, “it merely shifts all the burden onto the minimum bill proceedings” to ascertain the feasibility of participation for subscribers, though his group remains enthusiastic about the advancements.
Utility spokeswoman Teresa Hall expressed that Appalachian Power is “content” with the bill, highlighting the company’s concern regarding cost redistribution.
Hall emphasized, “The minimum bill plays a crucial role in guaranteeing that participants in shared solar schemes contribute to their portion of the grid’s expenses, thereby preventing the burden from being transferred to other ratepayers. Ultimately, without equitable distribution of the costs associated with clean energy endeavors, we risk falling short of our objectives.”

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