How Much Have We Lost?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Weekly Column: More Access to Clean Solar Power for Virginians

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, The Mt. Vernon Voice and The Potomac-Stafford Local in the week of September 1, 2015.
More Access to Clean Solar Power for Virginians
Last week, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved an innovative solar program proposed by Dominion Resources, a project that will enhance consumer choices and facilitate clean, renewable energy production for many Virginians.
 
As Virginia implements the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, the state's utilities  need to transition to systems that reduce carbon emissions and deliver reliable, affordable power to  homes and businesses.

 
Carbon-based energy sources like coal are the largest contributors to global climate change. Traditional fossil fuels can also produce mercury and ozone pollution.  We have some of the unfortunate consequences of coal-powered electricity right here in Northern Virginia.  At Possum Point near Dumfries and Quantico in Prince William County, there are coal ash dumps in the form of five ponds near the Potomac River.  Coal ash is well known to leech lead, boron and hexavalent chromium into ground water. This type of "storage" can also result in massive pollution spills. 
 
Natural gas is another alternative, but it too emits carbon dioxide when burned.  And producing natural gas by fracking is well-documented to cause ground water pollution and can even cause water to catch on fire.  In addition, the infrastructure to transport natural gas requires pipelines and condemnation or forfeiture of private property. 
 
Solar energy does not have these shortcomings.  Due to declining manufacturing costs as factories achieve economies of scale, solar power has increasingly become the preferred energy source of choice for many homes, businesses and utilities.  Solar also promotes individual freedom as Virginians can live off the grid and produce their own power on their own terms. 
 
Unfortunately, existing Virginia law only allows a customer to net the energy generated by a solar panel directly against a meter connected to the panel.  This means that solar is not available to everyone. 
 
Solar is usually not economical for homes in neighborhoods with significant tree cover.  Also, it is usually not available if you do not own your roof, such as apartment or condominium buildings.  Most businesses hesitate to make a significant investment in solar if they do not own their roof and most landlords are not incentivized to install solar because the tenants pay the electrical bills.   
 
Making Solar More Available
Given these obstacles, one solution I have championed over the last six years has been what’s commonly referred to as community solar or “solar gardens.”   Some states allow groups of consumers or businesses to pool their capital, construct solar panels on a third party’s property and then collectively net the energy generated by the panels against their individual meters.  This is a net win for individuals, businesses and the third party who can receive more return on their property.  However, Virginia’s investor-owned utilities have consistently opposed this because it undermines their monopoly. 
 
Because of our pressure, Dominion recently received approval to construct two megawatts of solar panels which they will resell to consumers and businesses in 100 kilowatt (kw) chunks for approximately $4 per month.  Each consumer or business will be allowed to purchase up to 400kw.  This means that customers in Dominion’s territory will be able to purchase solar energy and net it against their home meter. 
 
Last March, I was proud to partner with Dominion in announcing their application for SCC approval.  On August 7, 2015, the SCC approved this plan. Dominion can now move forward.
 
While I still believe that the best solution is allowing groups of individuals or businesses to do this independently, Dominion's program is a great advance that will provide consumers with more choices and the ability to choose less-polluting, renewable energy if their homes or businesses are not ideally suited.
 
You can read the SCC’s approval order and Dominion’s "Frequently Asked Questions" flyer about this program at scottsurovell.blogspot.com
 
It is an honor to serve in the House of Delegates and hope to serve you in the State Senate of Virginia.  If you have any feedback, you can always reach me at 
scott@scottsurovell.org.
 

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