In this 2019 photo, members of the Norton Rescue Squad, including squad leader Todd Lagow, left, and Skipper Dorton, right, practice loading a patient into an ambulance using its lift system. Credit: Chelsea Barnes / Appalachian Voices

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Southwest Virginia is void of solar projects and installers, but an effort by regional nonprofits aims to change that.

Todd Lagow’s business card is flush with job titles.

He’s already juggling full-time duties as the fire chief, rescue squad leader and emergency management coordinator in Norton, Virginia. However, those responsibilities haven’t deterred him from taking up the mantle of solar ambassador in this city of 3,900 deep in Appalachian coal country.

If financing is procured, Norton’s city-owned rescue squad headquarters is in line for a 72-kilowatt rooftop solar array that could be a renewable energy model for similar buildings across southwest Virginia.

It sounds small, but solar has the potential to erase — or at least significantly slice — the headquarters’ $800 to $1,000 monthly electric bill.

“Our budget now is tighter than tight,” Lagow said. “The whole community wins if we can save $500 or more a month and spend it on cots, suction units and other supplies we need.”

Lagow was first in line when he learned that the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia was seeking early adopters.

The collaborative, birthed in 2016 during an economic forum at University of Virginia-Wise, seeks to develop a renewable energy industry cluster in the region’s seven coalfield counties.

Early on, it received federal funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to introduce solar in an underserved, poorer part of Virginia mostly devoid of renewable power.

This month, the workgroup put out a bid for proposals on the Norton rescue squad building and 11 other solar projects totaling 2.73 megawatts.

A Baptist church in Gate City, a fitness center in Big Stone Gap, an apartment complex in Abingdon, a wastewater treatment facility in Pennington Gap, a hotel in St. Paul and a hospital building in Norton are also among the dozen nonprofits, businesses and local governments eyeing solar.

Chelsea Barnes, who started as the new economy program manager for Appalachian Voices in January, knows it’s a heavy lift to deploy solar in a state with piecemeal legislation, and in a region where utilities aren’t yet up to speed on renewables and many people are leery of the transition.

As well, no solar developers have yet set up shop in an area where the barriers to renewables are so high.

“We are trying to do something that’s hard,” said Barnes, whose nonprofit spearheaded the workgroup. “We realize it’s not easy to find financing solutions, but we’re asking bidders to be creative.”

Preference will be granted to solar developers able to provide contracts that avoid upfront costs for participants, hire and help to train local workers, and are installed in time to be eligible for federal tax credits, she said.

The workgroup is sensitive to the fact that on average, rural households nationwide spend 40% more than their metropolitan counterparts on energy bills, according to a recent study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). And that “energy burden” is especially high in Central Appalachia, where rural residents spend an outsize portion of their income on home energy bills.

It’s not just the cost of electricity that dictates energy affordability. Energy efficiency, usage and household income are other key factors in that equation.

While ACEEE has focused its analyses on the residential sector, senior research analyst Mary Shoemaker said businesses, nonprofits and local governments can also benefit from investments in energy efficiency and solar.

“They can hire more people, save money, expand operations and improve the comfort level of everybody in the buildings,” Shoemaker said. “Investments in energy efficiency pay for themselves. The cost savings from solar tend to accrue over a longer period of time.”

Progress slow on workgroup’s first solar bid

Barnes is thrilled that Lagow is not only eager to put Norton on the solar map, but also is willing to convince other area emergency agencies to follow suit.

His role as the Norton representative on the board of the Southwest Virginia Emergency Medical Services Council means he’s in constant contact with his colleagues.

“I can talk to them about how solar can save them money,” he said. “Our project in Norton could be a showcase for others.”

Lagow wants to complement the 72-kilowatt rooftop installation with a battery backup system because the propane gas generator his facility relies on now is insufficient to power the one-story building.

Solar developers have until May 21 to bid on the 2.73 MW projects.

One tricky part for Barnes will be helping the winner navigate an agreement with the local utility, Old Dominion Power. Nine of the 12 proposed solar projects, including Norton’s rescue squad, are in the investor-owned utility’s territory, which has a tiny solar footprint thus far.

It’s a unit of Kentucky Utilities that serves about 30,000 Virginia customers in Wise, Lee, Russell, Scott and Dickenson counties. Norton is in Wise County.

“Our goal is to push solar developers to come up with solutions that require no money down and will provide a net savings from the beginning,” Barnes explained. “Whether or not we can find the answer to that, we’ll find out.”

This is the second time the workgroup has issued bids in coal country. Last November, it selected a team led by NCI, a solar developer in Richmond, to develop 1.5 MW of solar at two high schools and four other sites.

Ridgeview High School is in Dickenson County. Central High School, Norton Green Apartments, the Lonesome Pine Industrial Center, the University of Virginia-Wise Oxbow Center and the Wetlands Estonoa Learning Center are the five projects in Wise County.

NCI joined with Acorn Electrical Specialists in Piney Flats, Tennessee, and RockBridge Energy in Savannah, Georgia, to win that bid.

Mark Moormans works for People Inc., another regional nonprofit that paired with Appalachian Voices to jumpstart the workgroup.

“One reason we chose NCI for the first round of projects is because their team included an education component and local workforce development,” Moormans said. “We didn’t want people flying in from out of town or out of state and then leaving. We want them to have skin in the game for the long term.”

The tri-company bid includes solar training at local community colleges.

For months, Daniel Hunnicutt, of RockBridge Energy, has immersed himself in Virginia rules and regulations to navigate financing packages for those first six projects.

He is hopeful that legislation signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in late March will open the way this summer for what he considers the anchor projects — which total 1200 kW — at the two high schools. Financing packages for the other four projects will be much more complicated and labor intensive, he said.

“We have to create a path forward that doesn’t t look like anything we’ve used before,” Hunnicutt said. “We’re committed to moving forward, but it’s never easy when you’re covering new ground and have to find another way around.”

Norton in grant-seeking mode

In the meantime, rescue squad leader Lagow is optimistic and on the lookout for grants to cover the upfront costs of a solar array and storage package.

He’s confident the money will materialize, just as a $250,000 grant did for the first new ambulance Norton has purchased in 20 years.

“We have to be innovative,” he said about serving roughly 8,000 residents spread over 45 square miles with three ambulances. “If I can find a grant for something like solar that keeps on giving, that is added value.”

His first responders would be flush with more than $1 million annually if the 1,100 residents receiving services could afford to pay their full bill. As it is, payments add up to about $180,000 because people are struggling to make a living and, Lagow said, “we’re not going to send them to collections.”

That $180,000 trickle, plus money from the city and county, is barely enough to cover salaries for his two paid staffers, stipends for a cadre of volunteers and all of the utility bills.

Another budget woe is the precipitous drop in on-site Bingo proceeds from a peak of $192,000 in 2010 to barely $4,000 today.

“We were living on Bingo money, but not anymore,” Lagow said. “We’re broke again and right on the edge of surviving. If we’re going to save money with solar, it’s a win.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.