Solar panels at Cooper Vineyards in Louisa, Virginia. Credit: USDA

Advocates for small solar say Virginia’s progress on utility scale solar has been largely at the expense of rooftop and community-owned installations.

While Dominion Energy is moving to boost its solar installations, which its independent contractors can also profit from, small solar advocates contend very little is being done for consumers by either the utility or state policymakers.

“Every bit of solar is good. But what we’re starting to hear from people we work with is that utility-scale solar is growing at the expense of rooftop solar,” said Aaron Sutch, who heads the VA-SUN chapter of the Community Power Network.

Sutch says the lack of progress on rooftop solar shows that Dominion is not respecting what he argues should be the responsibilities that come with being a monopoly electricity provider.

Irene Leach, a professor of consumer studies at Virginia Tech, says beyond a narrow pilot program, utilities in Virginia “have been promised (by lawmakers) they won’t have to address” boosting small solar.

In fact, there are growing concerns within the industry that their position will be further weakened.

At an April 5 meeting of the Virginia Renewable Energy Alliance (VA-REA), Francis Hodsoll of SolUnesco, a project developer who markets projects to Dominion, suggested there are dilutions looming in 2018 to Dominion’s net metering policy, which benefits small system owners.

“Utilities are 100% committed to making changes on net metering,” he said.

‘We’re trying to make both work’

Net metering credits owners of small solar systems interconnected with utilities at the retail rate for any electricity they don’t use. Those kilowatts are pushed out to the local distribution grid and help meet the electricity needs of nearby ratepayers.

Sutch vowed to deploy VA-SUN’s and other networks to defend the current net metering benefit.

Hodsoll is credited by many for being among the few solar advocates responsible for getting Dominion to participate in a consensus-building group approach moderated by Mark Rubin of Virginia Commonwealth University. While Dominion agreed to a few provisions to boost multi-megawatt systems it could buy and profit from, it has stood firm in the group’s deliberations against community solar, rooftop solar and most other forms of distributed generation.

“Last year we discovered some things that weren’t going to work (including proposals for rooftop solar),” Hodsoll said. “We’re approaching the two markets separately. We’re not going to trade one for the other. We’re trying to make both work.”

At a presentation Hodsoll gave May 11 at the Solar Power Southeast conference in Atlanta, he appealed to all solar advocates: “We’re so much better off unified than divided. We in the industry need to overcome these differences.”

‘We don’t exist to serve a corporate monopoly’

The bleak outlook for distributed generation is leading many small solar advocates to retool their outreach programs and beef up grassroots support from their networks.

One such step is the recasting of a loose-knit collaborative effort into the “Distributed Solar Alliance,” whose lead organizer is Secure Futures LLC in Staunton. Secure Futures plans on reaching out to the networks maintained by VA-SUN, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network to continue growing support.

Sutch and other advocates say the job-creating benefit of installing small solar systems (compared to utility-scale projects) has not been embraced by the Rubin group, Dominion and Virginia’s General Assembly.

“Our electric utilities exist to serve us. We don’t exist to serve a corporate monopoly as if they were our overlords,” Sutch said. “Rooftop solar benefits all Virginians by creating local jobs and allowing consumers to control and choose how they get their energy.”

The National Solar Jobs Census 2016 found of the 260,077 solar jobs in 2016, approximately 69 percent focused primarily on the residential and commercial markets segment, while 31 percent were focused on utility-scale development.

Another participant in the Rubin group is Karen Schaufeld, a wealthy farmer in Leesburg, Virginia who owns a 466-kilowatt solar system. Along with a lobbyist, she helped convince the group to persuade this year’s General Assembly to pass legislation authorizing wineries and farms such as hers to build sizable solar systems that can earn net metering credits. Owners also earn a credit for the additional capacity they make available to Dominion.

The Rubin group also secured support and ultimately the passage of a first-ever pilot program for utility-run community solar systems. Clean energy advocates are quick to criticize that real “community solar” systems deserved to be owned by homeowners and small businesses that join it, not by utilities.

Schaufeld defended the Rubin group’s work for enabling more renewables generally. In the group’s first year, that meant identifying economic models for market segments that Dominion would support.

“We’re in for a long-haul process,” Schaufeld said. “There were certain things that we felt we could get and break the logjam  … to get solar and renewable energy a larger share of the energy picture in Virginia. It’s not like we care more about one versus the other.”

Distributed Solar Alliance

Hodsoll, who represents the regional chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) at Rubin group meetings, said the group held a combined 56 in-person meetings and conference calls in 2016 to draft proposals for this year’s six-week General Assembly, which ended in late February.

Each of the Rubin group participants has signed a non-disclosure agreement; while critics have called for more transparency from the group.

Karen Torrent, who recently joined Secure Futures to help develop projects financed by power purchase agreements, agreed that any effort to grow solar generally represents a step forward. But the Rubin group’s closed-door approach with Dominion riles her and other leaders of the emerging Distributed Solar Alliance.

The Alliance plans to formally launch its outreach efforts on or around May 23 in Richmond. On the same day, utility-scale developers from around the country are meeting, also in Richmond, to discuss building on their recent gains.

“Seventy percent, maybe 90 percent, of distributed solar energy (providers) in Virginia are either renouncing their (MDV-SEIA) membership or are on their way to,” Torrent said, adding that she’s “not picking a fight” with them, just capturing the will of the Virginia members.

Hodsoll acknowledged “We have not done a great job in the past (for distributed energy). Hopefully (the new Distributed Solar Alliance) will be helpful going forward.”

Short of issuing a request for proposals for a single, large solar system, virtually all large- and small-scale renewable energy advocates agree that Dominion has done very little on its own to deploy solar energy. If Dominion’s corporate customers, such as Microsoft, hadn’t demanded wind-or solar-generated electricity in 2016, the utility scale solar market would still be facing a bleak outlook.

Hodsoll said Dominion has “bought up (solar) projects to protect themselves. They agreed to pursue (the initial) 500 megawatts of solar in the public interest because they were forced (by lawmakers) to agree to that.”

As for the future for distributed energy, that’s tough to predict, Hodsoll said. “Utilities don’t really want it. You’ve got Southeast states that are keeping tight control over the utility franchises. But a lot of people do want it. How that all plays out, stay tuned.”

Jim Pierobon, a policy, marketing and social media strategist, was a founding contributor to Southeast Energy News. He passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer in 2018.