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Changes in State Law Pave the Way for more Solar Jobs

Michael Pope

Virginia hasn’t traditionally had a great reputation for renewable sources of energy. But the solar industry is now booming in Virginia.

Luc DeWulf opens a large white utility door in a leafy suburb in Arlington County. “Here we have the solar generator meter,” he says.

DeWulf is a parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church. He’s showing off a new solar generator meter that gauges the power being created by solar panels on top of the building — the first Church in the diocese to install solar panels — maybe the first Catholic church in Virginia to install solar.

Credit Michael Pope
Parishioner Luc DeWulf shows Bill Larme how the solar generator meter works.


“We have been on this thing for more than a year and a half, lobbying the diocese, lobbying the financier, lobbying the producer, lobbying the church," he explains. "So it’s a good day for us.”

Let there be light is no longer just a line from Genesis. It’s now at the center of this church’s plan to power its facilities and save the planet. There’s even a cross displayed at the center of one of the solar arrays. “It reduces a two percent production on those panels because of the film over it. But we were willing to pay the two percent reduction in productivity to have this," DeWulf says.  "Google Maps will show our church with a cross on it.”

According to numbers from the Solar Foundation, in the last year the number of solar jobs in Virginia spiked nine percent. There are now more solar jobs in Virginia than coal jobs.

Ed Gilliland is senior director at the Solar Foundation, and he says Virginia is just now catching up to other states. “A lot of the well established states such as California and Massachusetts are experiencing some growing pains as they have installed a lot more solar.”

So those states have job growth numbers that are sagging, Gilliland says. “Whereas a lot of the emerging states such as Virginia solar is getting popular and the price is declining. So we are experiencing a lot of growth in these emerging states.”

But there’s another reason solar jobs are taking off in Virginia — recent changes to Virginia law. Will Cleveland at the Southern Environmental Law Center says one of the landmark changes happened back in 2015, when the General Assembly passed a bill that he says had some problems. “One of the silver linings to it was that it declared 500 megawatts of solar to be in the public interest," Cleveland explains. "And that declaration makes it much easier to get utility-scale solar projects approved at the State Corporation Commission.”

And then last year there was another bill — again with problems, Cleveland says — but its silver lining was as bright as the sun. “It changed the 500 megawatt number to 5,000. And that I think has really sent a strong signal that solar really is the future of Virginia’s energy.”

Back at Our Lady Queen of Peace the hardware and the software has now been installed, and the Church is now running on solar power. Father Timothy Hickey is the pastor and says concern for the planet was at the center of his church’s fight to get the solar panels up and running, despite the many obstacles along the way.

“The people who are most hurt by climate change are the poorest in the world,” Hickey says. “The Pope issued a couple of years ago an encyclical and in line with the encyclical we are trying to put that into action and putting solar panels on the roof is a very visible sign of that commitment.”

A sign that’s just as visible as that cross on one of the solar panels, a cross that’ll soon show up when people are looking at aerial views of Arlington on Google Maps.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

***Editor's note: The Southern Environmental Law Center is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.
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