Meg O'Bannon

Solar panels at Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville, Virginia.

Two years after its creation, Virginia solar authority shows little progress

Despite a rapid buildup of large solar arrays in Virginia, the state’s Solar Energy and Energy Storage Authority has been slow to target and act on opportunities that could advance smaller-scale systems.

A 2015 law established the authority, and lawmakers and Gov. Terry McAuliffe expanded the authority’s mission earlier this year to include energy storage.

While encouraged by authority’s mission, many solar advocates are skeptical because lawmakers and McAuliffe have so far not provided funding to set up operations, engage partners or hire staff.

Over the past two years, utility-scale solar in Virginia has grown rapidly because of demand from large power users like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google; Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, is accommodating those needs.

Left out of that boom are homeowners and communities who want solar but don’t yet have it, along with businesses and academic institutions seeking to rein in their energy costs – and advocates say the authority could be doing more to meet those needs.

The authority — housed inside the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) in Richmond — has only been able to issue a single report summarizing organizational efforts date. Another report is expected by year’s end.

Ken Jurman, the authority’s staff contact at DMME, said it submitted a $1.1 million budget request to the governor and the legislature but it has yet to be approved.

“We plan to try again in the upcoming legislative session,” he said.

For advocates, Dominion’s efforts to limit community solar, residential net metering and to prohibit third-party sales of solar energy raise questions about the utility’s commitment to the authority’s broader mission, which includes to “promote the growth of the Virginia solar industry” and support collaboration “between entities, both public and private, to partner on solar energy projects.”

Katherine Bond, Dominion’s Director of Public Policy, serves on the authority, which currently has three vacancies.

Dominion declined to respond to specific questions about the company’s relationship with the authority, but said in a statement that the utility “continues to be committed to renewable energy — as evidenced by the over 750 MW solar and offshore wind we have either operational or announced here in Virginia.”

‘A huge lost opportunity’

Under Virginia law, the authority does have two possible sources of funding, said Barrett Hardiman, the authority’s chairperson. One is to issue bonds. The other is to accept money from a private entity that it agrees to collaborate with.

“If there was money, there are things we could jump on fairly quickly,” he said.

Based on the members’ few meetings to date – only one this year – they still have much to organize and prioritize before formulating a strategic plan and budget.

With neither a state tax credit nor a mandate that the state’s utilities source a certain percentage of their power from solar, wind and other renewable forms of energy, Hardiman said the members realize their options are very limited. So they’re striving to become the go-to resource for electricity users of all types: businesses large and small, communities wanting to develop shared systems and homeowners.

To do that, it could use a dedicated website, which it has yet to launch.

“We’re going to put together a matrix capturing the rooftop, the commercial and community and utility-scale markets to identify what opportunities we have and how we can accelerate the things that could be working for us.”

Several members refused to comment on the record but expressed frustration at the authority’s lack of progress.

Solar advocates question what is complicating even modest steps forward or an active effort to secure its authorized bonding authority or private funding.

Tony Smith, founder and CEO of Secure Futures LLC in Staunton, a developer of solar systems for academic institutions, said “the authority could design economic incentives for utilities to invest in distributed solar for all types of organizations.” That, he said, could create “more opportunities for main street and Wall Street to invest in solar in Virginia.”

Added Smith: “It represents a huge lost opportunity and a waste of all the talents of those members to just meet and deliberate and have nothing to show for it.”

Hardiman insists members are “really excited to tackle” prospects for energy storage. “Everyone realizes if you can solve the energy storage challenge, you completely change the game when it comes to solar energy. It’s a natural opportunity for the authority.”

Hardiman said it will more likely be 2019 before the authority makes any specific recommendations to incoming Gov. Ralph Northam and the legislature.

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