Monday, April 15, 2024

Thousands of low-income Virginians set to get access to shared solar

Rooftop solar panels. (VCU Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — Over 4,500 low- and moderate-income families in Virginia that were previously unable to source their electricity from solar panels will soon have access to the technology.

On Tuesday, Dimension Renewable Energy and Community Housing Partners announced they are partnering to offer shared solar to residents of the housing nonprofit’s more than 70 affordable apartment communities in Virginia.

The agreement marks some of the earliest movement in Virginia’s nascent community solar industry, which began developing in the wake of a 2020 law.

“All of our residents that are in the Dominion Energy footprint are eligible,” said Michael Sutphin, communications manager for Community Housing Partners.

Community solar, called shared solar in Virginia, is a form of small-scale solar development that allows multiple households to draw power from an array often sited nearby.

Renewables advocates say shared solar is necessary to increase access to the technology, which under net metering arrangements with utility companies can drive down customers’ electricity bills.

Besides price barriers, households can be blocked from installing rooftop solar if their roof can’t support panels, if their lot is too shady or if they live in a multi-family structure like an apartment building.

Janaka Casper, CEO of Community Housing Partners, in a press release announcing the partnership called shared solar “another way for us to help low-income families in a responsible, climate-friendly way.”

Power will be drawn from eight Dimension solar installations around Virginia: the Suffolk project in Suffolk, the Halifax project in South Boston, the Prince Edwards project in Pamplin, the Augusta project in Augusta, the White Stone Ocran project in White Stone, the Waynesboro Bridge project in Waynesboro, the Fairfield Lee project in Fairfield and the recently approved Pittsylvania CSG project in Chatham.

For years, shared solar wasn’t an option for Virginia customers. Despite 2017 legislation requiring Dominion and Appalachian Power to develop community solar pilots, Dominion didn’t open its program to customers until this May; today, subscribers must pay a premium for their participation. Appalachian Power has chosen a solar project for its pilot, but spokesperson Teresa Hall said the installation only came online this June “and as a result, our pilot program isn’t in place just yet.”

“We are fully dedicated and our goal is to get it implemented over the next few months,” she wrote in an email.

In 2020, with little progress apparent, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and then-Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, put forward legislation requiring Dominion to develop a program where interested customers could get power from small arrays — defined as those with a capacity of no more than 5 megawatts — developed by non-utility companies. Separate legislation ordered the creation of a shared solar program for multifamily residences like apartment buildings in Dominion and Old Dominion Power territory.

During hearings, Dominion argued that because participating customers would pay less for electricity, non-participating customers would have to pay more to ensure the utility could recoup its operating costs.

Ultimately, a provision was added to the shared solar bill requiring state regulators to set a “minimum bill” for shared solar customers that would “ensure subscribing customers pay a fair share of the costs of providing electric services” and “minimize the costs shifted to customers not in a shared solar program.”

After months of wrangling, the State Corporation Commission this July agreed to set the minimum bill at $55.10, an amount that community solar groups say would be the highest such charge in the country and would make the program so expensive as to be useless.

Crucially, however, one group is exempted from the minimum bill: low-income customers, who must make up at least 30% of shared solar subscribers and are the primary group served by Community Housing Partners.

The nonprofit estimates that customers who sign up for shared solar through the Dimension partnership could see a 10% decrease in their monthly electric bill.

Charlie Coggeshall, director of policy and regulatory affairs for the Coalition for Community Solar Access, said that because the $55.10 minimum bill “makes the economics extremely challenging” for developers, low-income projects “might be the only way” to offer shared solar in Virginia.

That “is not a bad thing, but (it’s) not necessarily what was envisioned by the legislation,” he said.

Households interested in shared solar won’t be able to enroll in a program until July 1, 2023, or whenever Dominion completes development of a new customer information system.

This story has been updated to clarify the names of the solar projects included in the partnership.

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