Solar bills enable solar access, with significant concerns

The majority of policies impacting our right to go solar are made locally, in Virginia, by the General Assembly. The Virginia General Assembly is made up our state Senators and Delegates.

This legislative session, the General Assembly passed two pieces of legislation that will impact our ability to access solar. The first, SB 1393 creates a path for the state’s utilities to develop solar projects by allowing Virginians to participate in a voluntary subscription program. The second, SB 1394, modifies the rules by which agricultural producers can build and get credit for solar. That our legislature is considering ways to further enable solar in Virginia demonstrates that solar is making progress in Virginia. But, both bills raise concerns about who will benefit from the increased penetration of solar in the Commonwealth.

SB 1393 lets utilities create solar subscription programs. This would allow utility customers to pay a premium subscription rate for solar energy that is not located on their property. This is a positive step, as it creates another way for Virginians to benefit from solar. However, lawmakers have incorrectly titled this as the “community solar bill”. This is misleading.

Real community solar is when the community, not a monopoly utility, owns and develops a shared solar project. Real community solar enables utility customers to own or lease a share of a solar project and see a positive financial return. Instead, the bill passed by the General Assembly does not allow direct community ownership or administration of the project.

Under SB 1393, the utility decides where the project will be built and acts as a middleman buying the power from the solar array owner and then selling it to the consumer. SB 1393 also lets the utility buy the solar array project itself, which makes such projects just another form of utility-provided energy.

SB 1394 aims to increase the amount of solar that farmers can generate on their property and establish a fixed revenue stream for energy production from solar, and other renewable energy sources as well.

Currently, farmers can install systems up to 1,000 kW of solar and produce up to 100% of their energy and get full energy credit through net metering. Additionally, farmers are able to ‘aggregate meters’. This means if farmers have more than one energy meter on their property, they can credit the surplus energy that their solar produces to multiple meters. This allows farmers the flexibility to site panels on optimal structures with low electricity usage (such as a barn) and credit the electricity to meters with higher energy demand (but less optimal roofs).

Under SB 1394, farmers can install systems up to 1,500 kW in size and supply up to 150% of the farm’s annual electric needs. The array would not be allowed take up more than 25% of the farm’s land. Importantly, systems under this program will no longer receive net metering credit. Instead, utilities will only have to pay farmers a yet to be determined wholesale rate that it pays to purchase electricity from other suppliers like power plants.

Further, after July 2019, farmers served by electric cooperatives who want to build solar arrays must do so under this new program and will not have the option for net metering or meter aggregation. For existing net-metered farmers served by cooperatives, the program expires in 25 years. Farmers served by other utilities would be permitted to stay under the existing net metering system.

Finally, even though the farmers under the new program are not credited at the net metered rate, these new and larger solar arrays still count towards the Commonwealth’s 1% net metering cap. This is a concerning development as it has the potential to harm other ratepayers like homes and businesses that do not benefit from this program by blocking their access to net metering should the 1% cap be reached.

That the General Assembly is developing ways to help more Virginians go solar is a positive step forward. We should be concerned the rules they are putting into place would take us two steps back. Stay informed about future legislation and learn how you can fight for your solar rights by signing up for the VA SUN newsletter.