More than 10,000 homes in Virginia have solar panels, according to the Department of Mines Minerals and Energy. Proponents of renewable energy say those numbers could be higher and Virginia law is partially to blame.
Now there’s an effort to get more houses, schools and governments connected to the solar grid.
When Robin Raver first had her rooftop solar installed she’d check constantly to see how much energy they were producing.
“It’s a crazy feeling to go ‘Oh my gosh I’m actually contributing and not taking.’,” says Raver.
Sitting inside her house just outside Richmond, Raver explains she went solar for two reasons: to help the environment, and to save money.
“If I’m getting some of my electricity from the sun then that’s less of an electric bill that I’ll have in the future,” she explains.
For most home-owners this is what going solar looks like. They have panels, but they’re still connected to the grid. The utility company keeps track of how much energy the panels are producing and subtracts that amount from their monthly bills. It’s called net metering - explains solar expert Aaron Sutch.
“It’s a fair full value credit for the energy that they produce. So really you’re not making money but it’s kind of like rollover minutes when cellphones used to do that,” says Sutch. “If you have a surplus of energy that you produce you can apply that surplus to your forthcoming bill.”
But in Virginia there’s a legal cap on how many people can take advantage of net metering, essentially limiting how many people can go solar.
And although that cap hasn’t been reached, Sutch says the fact that it’s even there can be a deterrent. He hears it all the time from folks thinking of joining the solar co-cop he runs, Solar United Neighbors.
“There’s a lot of people that talk to us and say ‘Well I heard there’s a cap and what if net metering goes away.’ So it creates a lot of uncertainty for home and business owners that want to go solar,” says Sutch.
Although there are still details to be worked out legislation that would lift the cap is working its way through the statehouse. It has support from the Governor and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“I think the idea that we have to raise the cap is certainly a consensus,” says Democratic Delegate Mark Keam. “As to how much that cap ought to be and when and how do we get to that point, that’s a matter for discussions.”
Keam supports getting rid of the cap altogether, and not just for individuals, but also for local governments and schools.
Albemarle, Middlesex and Augusta Counties have all been able to power some of their schools with solar through a pilot program. But the program is so small there’s no room for anyone else.
For instance Fairfax County wants to hop on board with its more than 200 public schools, but they’re legally not allowed.
Keam says these caps were initially put in place to limit competition. But now, times have changed.
“If we don’t lift that cap now then we would be just artificially stalling the progress of more distributed solar that’ll go into local areas,” says Keam.
Environmentalists say distributed solar is important because the small-scale projects don’t take up much land and they’re paid for with private dollars.
Bob Shippee, with the Sierra Club, says solar freedom is critical to reaching carbon reduction goals.
“There’s no good path to that without having a healthy chunk of that be distributed solar, and potentially wind,” Shippee says. “We need this to achieve any of the climate goals that Virginia has.”
Virginia’s Governor has said he wants the state to produce 100-percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.