Solar electricity in Virginia is growing fast in some parts of the commonwealth but more slowly in others. A state mandate to be ‘carbon neutral by 2050,’ signed into law earlier this year, means more renewable energy will be needed to meet that goal. Robbie Harris reports.
Virginia ranks 8th in the country for solar electricity generated on site at its public and private schools. Generation 180, a solar advocacy group, says the solar schools are not only making power, they’re also making money for the schools.
“There are many schools in Virginia and across the country that are realizing that they can actually cut their electricity (bills and save money) instead of cutting programs, laying off teachers” or taking other measures to tighten their budgets.
Generation 180's Tish Tablan says schools can use the money they save on their solar electricity any way they want. With budget cuts expected due to the pandemic, a solar savings could come in handy.
“We talked to the superintendent in Tucson, Arizona, and Arizona is 49th in the country in state spending per student. So, nearly the entire district has gone solar and they're going to save $43 million over the next 20 years. And in just the past five years since they started, they've saved $3.37 million. So that's a lot of money that they can put back into their critical needs.”
Saving money this way comes courtesy of something called a Power Purchasing Agreement or PPA. The way it works is, a solar company owns and operates the solar array it installs at the school. Schools commit to a long-term contract, in exchange, paying lower than market rates for their electricity for the next few decades.
“There's no upfront costs that we ever bear," says Peter Gretz, superintendent of the Middlesex County School Division along the Chesapeake Bay.
Gretz and a committee spent months researching these Power Purchase Agreements for solar on schools and at first, people thought the idea too good to be true. “This is one of those things that when you hear somebody say you're going to realize, in our case, $52,000 in the first year of cost avoidance, at one school, no upfront cost, no burden, no fiscal responsibility on the part of the school division” it becomes a pretty easy decision. So much so, that the school district decided to add solar to its other 2 schools. This time the decision was an easy one.
“We basically agree to host the panels on our property,” Gretz explains, “We enter into an agreement with, in our case Sun Tribe, Solar that sells us, the energy generated by those panels at an agreed upon rate that never goes up for 25 years. Financially it was a no brainer for us.”
In recent years, Dominion Energy has embraced the new solar models in its territory. The state’s other major utility, Appalachian Power, has been less enthusiastic about seeing more solar in its region of coverage, the southwestern part of Virginia. Some people see that as a sad irony.
“It's especially important in rural areas, especially in the Coalfield region where there have been significant job losses in the coal industry, to help stimulate those economies “says Anthony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures Solar, a company that finances and builds solar energy systems at schools. “And solar is the fastest growing job creator in our national economy.”
“So, it's not just saving school some money, which is very important of course, and therefore helping save money for taxpayers in that community, but also creating jobs where unemployment levels are higher than other parts of the state.”
But those high unemployment levels have a boomerang effect when it comes to adding more solar. With Appalachian Power’s relatively small customer base and its very large service area, there’s fear the financials won’t work. The concern is that energy costs will go up for Appalachian Power’s customers if it adds more solar.
Observers say, bringing those costs into line for the company is the path to more renewable energy in southern Virginia.
Negotiations are going on behind the scenes, among several groups, and word is, they’re making progress. Rocky Mount Town Manager James Irvin is involved in negotiations.
While there has long been an impasse on this topic, Irvin says, Appalachian Power has never said they were going to fight the PPA. "Now, they weren't very PPA friendly," he concedes, "but they certainly are trying to come up with a way to make it work.”
Under the law they have to make it work; “Carbon Neutral by 2050.”
And that means the state will need more renewable energy generated from a lot more areas of the state if Commonwealth is to meet its goal.