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Growing Solar: Modernizing the Grid for a New Direction

Image: Solarize Blacksburg

For most electricity consumers, it's a one way street. Your utility sells it to you and you pay your bill each month based on how much you use.   But that’s changing.  Soon, rooftop solar producers could play a role in making the power grid more resilient to outages. Robbie Harris reports. 

Rooftop solar has been on the rise for much of the last decade.

Madhav Marathe, a Computer Scientist at Virginia Tech has been studying solar energy for the last 20 years as production costs have dropped steadily. 

He says, “solar power is becoming increasingly cheaper and the cost of producing energy from the sun is essentially at par with fossil fuel.  I think we all agree that fossil fuel has a large carbon footprint and solar energy has a substantially smaller carbon footprint and this would have a positive impact on sustainability and environmental pollution.

Marathe is with Tech’s Biocomplexity Institute, which gathers data and studies it to find patterns in how humans and systems function. He’s working on a project to find ways to increase production of rooftop solar in rural Virginia.

“This project is being funded by the Department of Energy and a consortium of operators that manage small rural grids across the country called NRECA. The  National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.  who have a lot of interest in trying to modernize the grid, trying to use more and more solar as a part of a mix in the grid.”

But when it comes to making the shift to solar it’s more than just clouds that get in the way. Not every rooftop is right for renewable energy production. Installation can be costly and time consuming and some people just don’t want the panels on their roofs.

“So the method that we are trying to follow, which has been used in social sciences, is to  see whether folks start adopting the technology because they’re friends, neighbors, family members start adopting it. It’s well understood in social science that often times people are willing to change their behavior when their peers change their behavior.  We hope that a similar phenomenon can be put into play when adopting these solar panels in Virginia.”

That method may have played a role in some areas of the state where early adopters consider roof top solar a no brainer. Billy Weitzenfeld is Executive Director of the Association for Energy Conservation Professionals (AECP) in Floyd.

“There’s been this really nice, grass roots leadership that’s really had a great impact. We have this “bottom up” that’s working really well, but we don’t have much top down.  So utilities can provide that sort of top down leadership and that’s a role they can play. And quite literally, overnight we could change the entire direction of this country in terms of energy use.”

But utilities in Virginia and all over the country have been slow to embrace what’s called ‘net metering’ a program first signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 that opened the door for them to buy power from independent producers. 

Appalachian Power has just 750 customers in its program in southwestern Virginia.  John Shepelwhich is spokesman for AEP: “Most of those people own the solar arrays. Some of them lease them from the manufacturer that supplies the production and upkeep and all that stuff.”

The number of people on AEP’s net metering plan is growing steadily but slowly in Virginia. Still, the US Department of Energy is preparing for a large increase in electricity heading to the grid from rooftop and other remote producers around the country. 

This year it earmarked several million dollars to update it for that purpose. But DOE could face a 6% cut in President Trump’s 2018 budget, the the deepest cuts would slash clean energy programs by some 70%.