1 Feb 2015

Community solar, bulk purchasing coops signal a new economic engine for Virginia

Written by Jim Pierobon

After hearing last summer about residential solar energy bulk purchasing cooperatives sprouting in parts of Virginia I thought to myself how that model faces a stiff test given how far behind the state is in enabling markets for solar and clean energy generally. I wrote in August about the first coops here.

Well results for the first year operations of these coops are in. And there is a very clear message for Virginia lawmakers: homeowners / voters want more in-state options to go solar; the General Assembly needs to enable this industry to prosper and the local jobs it can create.

Aaron Sutch at info session CREDIT

Community Power Network’s Virginia chapter program chief Aaron Sutch recently explained how a solar bulk purchasing coop works to dozens of residents in Harrisonburg, VA. CREDIT: Alleyn Harned

The Virginia chapter of the Community Power Network, Local Energy Alliance Program, Community Housing Partners, Richmond Regional Energy Alliance and Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light non-profits collectively have launched at least 19 coops from Leesburg to Roanoke to South Boston to Richmond to Arlington and many communities in between. And the number of coops is certain to grow in 2015.

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More than 2,500 homeowners have inquired about joining a coop leading to 1,511 on-site rooftop evaluations. At least 283 systems have been installed, or contracts signed, representing 1.42 megawatts worth of new solar power capacity. The local economic impact: more than $4.6 million in sales. See accompanying table.

If, as the state motto has often asserted, Virginia is open for business, then the General Assembly should open its eyes and ears to the business opportunity aptly demonstrated by these coops. Clean energy private sector companies get it. Now, with the General Assembly respond?

Robert W. Lazaro,  Jr, No Va Regl Cmsn, cropped

Purcellville, VA resident and solar owner Robert Lazaro bought a 4.7 kilowatt solar system through a Northern Virginia solar bulk purchasing coop organized by the Local Energy Alliance Program (leap). Photo courtesy of Robert Lazaro.

“The success of solarize programs across the state demonstrates that the time for solar in Virginia is right now,” said Aaron Sutch, Program Director of the Community Power Network’s Virginia chapter, aka ‘VA SUN’. “We can no longer afford to limit market access for a technology that is creating jobs and helping Virginians achieve energy freedom.”

A typical solar coop makes solar energy easier and more affordable to implement for area residents using the power of bulk purchasing. Solar installers across the state bid on a group of installations, helping drive the cost of solar down. The solarize organizer / non-profit guides interested homeowners by assessing whether their homes are suitable for solar and then selecting the most appropriate system. The organizer then lines up the solar installers, equipment, and permitting and financing options.

There are no fewer than 10 distinct solar energy bills under consideration in this year’s short (45-day) General Assembly which runs through the end of February. You can read a summary of them, with links to each one, here. The fate of most of these bills may well be decided at the next meeting of the General Assembly’s special Subcommittee on Energy which could occur this Tuesday, February 3 in Richmond.

Several in-state and regional solar companies are working quietly to help craft HB 1636, a community energy bill spotlighting the role for net metering which is sponsored by Del. Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg. They are negotiating quietly with Dominion Virginia Power to overcome several sticking points. At this writing, the bill had seven House co-sponsors (or “patrons”) and three co-sponsors in the Senate.

Net metering allows qualifying solar energy owners to earn credits for the excess electricity their systems push on to the power grid.

Listen to several of the coop customers and you’ll hear these common refrains about why they pursued solar energy in the first place. They want:

• the freedom to generate some of their own power;
• to save money in part through net metering;
• to do their part to improve Virginia’s air and water quality, and
• to promote the benefits of renewable energy to their friends, colleagues and social networks

Pickett Craddock's ground 3 pt 9 kW solar array, Hallifax, VA CROPPED

Picket Craddock, co-owner of the Oak Grove Plantation bed & breakfast in South Boston, Virginia plans to expand this ground-mounted solar array through the Halifax County solar coop organized by the Community Power Network’s Virginia chapter. Photo courtesy of Pickett Craddock.

“Because Virginia does not provide any incentives to produce solar power, I need to cut my costs 30% by joining a cooperative,” said Pickett Craddock, founder and owner of the Oak Grove Plantation bed & breakfast in South Boston in Halifax County, VA (photo, right). “Within five miles of our inn, there is a coal-fired electrical plant that pollutes the air. I would like sustainable energy that does not harm the environment,” Craddock added.

Note: the federal Investment Tax Credit of 30% is available to Virginians who purchase (not lease) solar systems through December 31, 2016 when it is scheduled to expire. Efforts to extend the credit (aka the “ITC”) have proven unsuccessful and face an uphill battle with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress at least through 2016. All the more reason for the General Assembly to pass legislation this month, giving Virginians two years to act.

“If Virginia could match North Carolina’s current tax credits, we could be among the country’s leaders in solar,” said Craddock. “There is interest in solar and potential, as shown by the excitement generated in Halifax County.”

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