Workgroup Seeks Compromises to Move Solar Forward

The consensus-building workgroup that fostered 2017 legislation to promote community solar energy in Virginia reconvened Monday to grapple with more intractable issues that stand in the way of widespread adoption of solar power.

Participants in the Solar Policy Collaborative Workgroup had clashed repeatedly in the General Assembly over the years, but decided to pursue a different approach in 2016. Mediated by Mark Rubin, executive director of the Virginia Center for Consensus Building at Virginia Commonwealth University, they worked out a compromise proposal that will allow Virginians to purchase renewable electricity generated by local, independent solar developers and marketed by electric utilities.

The General Assembly enacted the law in the 2017 session, and participants hope to build on the success, tackling issues that they could not resolve last year. “A level of trust and respect has been established among members of the steering committee,” said Rubin when convening the Monday meeting.

This year the ad hoc organization is seeking input from a broader array of stakeholders and inviting the public to attend meetings. Sub-groups will discuss issues relating to land use, large developers, large customers, community development and net metering. Of the five topics net metering — in which utilities pay owners of solar facilities for surplus electricity they supply to the grid — stimulated by far the most interest, inspiring numerous comments from the audience.

“No ideas are off the table,” said Sam Brumberg, counsel for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, and a leader of the net metering sub-group. He cited time-of-use rates, charging for usage of the grid, feed-in tariffs (which enable long-term contracts for solar generators) and other options that might be considered to encourage distributed solar development. “No idea is off limits.”

Brumberg was joined by Scott Thomasson, southeast director of Vote Solar. His organization has engaged in some “fierce battles” in other states over solar policy, he said. By participating in the Virginia solar workshop, he added, he hopes to “get better outcomes through dialogue. We want to avoid the melt-downs in other states.”

Net metering. One thing most audience members agreed upon is that the existing net metering law, designed to protect electric utilities, is a hindrance to widespread adoption of solar energy by homeowners, small businesses, and other small users. Current law limits net metering to residential systems up to 10 kW and commercial systems up to 500 kW, with a program cap if generating capacity reaches 1% of an electric utility’s peak load for the previous year. The benefit to generators is that their surplus electricity can be used to offset electricity purchases from the utility during off-peak periods.

Dominion Energy has sought to limit the surplus that generators could use to offset their electricity sales, while both Dominion and Appalachian Power have insisted upon stand-by charges to compensate them for the cost of maintaining the electric grid that solar-generating residences would draw upon for backup. Builders, environmentalists and other advocates say the restrictions make solar less attractive to install and give small, distributed generators no credit for the load they take off the transmission and distribution grids.

The interests of the electric utilities and the others seem starkly opposed, and there is no obvious way to reconcile the two. But Katharine Bond, senior policy adviser for Dominion, sounded an optimistic note, suggesting that new technology and novel rate structures might make the utilities “more agnostic” about solar initiatives that cut into utility revenues.

Another complication is that net-metering advocates are a diverse group and do not agree amongst themselves on the best approach. Charles Guarino, a Richmond-area resident, made a plea for simplicity in the net metering law. “If people don’t understand it, they won’t participate,” he said.

But Tom Hadwin, with Waynesboro-based ACN Energy Solutions, advocated a value-of-solar tariff based on the premise that it made more sense from the perspective of balancing load on the electric grid to put solar in some locations than in others. Electric rates would be less favorable for solar located near where the grid was congested than for locations where grid congestion was not an issue.

“Simplicity is good, but there are trade-offs,” said Thomasson with Vote Solar., who suggested that a tariff that varied by time of day and load demand might suit some better.

“Not everyone can get what they want,” said Brumberg, but “if we’re successful, folks will get some of what they want.”

Land use. Land use issues pertaining to solar also could be difficult to resolve. The word “solar” does not appear in most zoning codes, said Karen Schaufeld, a Loudoun County farmer and solar advocate. Local zoning officials often don’t know how to deal with a proposed solar facility. She advocates creating “clarity” for zoning officials and “predictability” for small and midsize solar generators. Consistency in zoning codes will make it easier and less expensive to develop new projects.

But Trent Taliaferro, a custom home builder, solar advocate and member of the Essex County zoning commission, argued that all conditions are local. “It can’t be one size fits all.”

Utility-scale projects. Most of the new solar capacity installed in Virginia will be large, utility-scale projects driven by government and large corporations that have made a commitment to reduce their carbon footprints.

A few entities have the capacity to develop their own solar facilities, said Francis Hodsall, founder of Reston-based SolUnesco, a solar developer. But most do not. There are outstanding issues relating to contracts and procurement, he said. “Demand exists. Supply exists,” he told Bacon’s Rebellion. “We want to put into place market mechanisms that work for the developer and the utilities.”

There may be sufficient flexibility in the existing regulatory structure to allow the kind of legal structures that developers and customers need. But the General Assembly may need to step in. Said Hodsall: “That’s what we’ll be working on.”

We addressed the low-hanging fruit last year,” said Dominion’s Bond. The remaining issues won’t be easily resolved. But submitting bills and bashing one another in the General Assembly wasn’t leading to productive results. This way, conflicting stakeholders will have a half year to work out a compromise before the next legislative session.

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4 responses to “Workgroup Seeks Compromises to Move Solar Forward

  1. Readers of this blog should be unanimous in condemning net metering. It is pure and simple a sizeable subsidy of homeowner solar, imposed at the expense of every other utility ratepayer as a hidden tax. By “running the meter backwards” to give credit for the solar electricity generated on-site when the sun is shining, the customer ends up making no contribution in those hours for the grid facilities that provide all customers with power when the sun isn’t shining. The grid has to be sized to carry the customer’s load even when he isn’t drawing from it.

    The solar lobby argues, this economic subsidy is needed to help boost the number of solar customers so we can more quickly reach a critical mass of homeowner solar (distributed solar) generation out there to create publicity for and familiarity with the concept of rooftop solar installations, as well as achieve economies of scale for the equipment manufacturers. Not so any longer. Solar power is commercially viable today WITHOUT a rate subsidy. Who believes those homeowner subsidies through net metering would ever cease, if they were implemented? Indeed, in California, where solar is popular and net metering has been mandated for higher levels of solar generation for years, they have a serious problem with too much distributed solar generation and underfunded grid backup costs.

    If you want to subsidized solar for startup purposes, do it transparently, through taxes, with a sunset provision built in. The hidden subsidy of net metering is bad policy.

  2. Acbar – good argument. Once you build in a subsidy, it’s damn hard to eliminate it. Add to this the need for some level of standby charges. If someone wants to pretend they are off-grid, but have quick access to commercial power, they need to pay something fair for that access or everyone else must pay the subsidy.

  3. The 10 kW residential program could be nice for some. I am not interested for my current house, but if I was, that would be a possibility.

  4. Roof-top solar is probably better than NA3 right now. So Dominion and Virginia need to think about cost avoidance, and if we are going to pay mega-bucks for new nuclear plant, try to make sure solar has a chance to compete (ie; Virginia should not overly subsidize and promote NA3 over the solar alternative, if solar has more merit.)

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