Credit: Slim Dandy / Creative Commons

A 2013 state law limits how much solar power schools and other entities can buy from third-party projects. 

The number of Virginia K-12 schools switching to solar has almost tripled to 86 since 2017, according to a clean energy group’s report released Tuesday.

But that trajectory will be stifled unless the state General Assembly lifts the limit on a pilot project that essentially caps solar arrays installed to electrify schools, universities, churches, municipal buildings and other tax-exempt entities to a total of 50 megawatts.

The number of schools embracing solar power grew from 29 to 86 over the last two years and the capacity installed expanded tenfold, from 1.9 MW to 20.1 MW, Generation 180 said in its “Powering a Brighter Future” report

Generation 180, a nonprofit based in Charlottesville, was founded in 2016 as a nationwide organization equipping individuals and communities to play a role in the country’s transition to 100% clean energy.

“This is the first state report we are rolling out,” said Tish Tablan, program director for Solar Schools, one of Generation 180’s initiatives. “We really wanted to get this story out before the General Assembly’s session.”

Clean energy advocates and environmental organizations are now collaborating with Dominion Energy to craft legislation that would widen solar energy’s footprint in the state by addressing limits on power purchase agreements (PPAs) and net metering.

The General Assembly begins its next session in January. Such a measure is more likely to pass after voters flipped both the House of Delegates and the Senate to Democratic majorities during the election earlier this month. 

Rachel Smucker is involved in those negotiations. She is the Virginia policy and development manager for the local branch of the Solar Energy Industries Association, representing Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

“It really is on the General Assembly to make sure this program can continue to be successful,” Smucker said. “There’s urgency on this matter.”

The numbers are what make the issue pressing. In 2013, legislators placed an overall limit of 50 MW on solar projects installed in Dominion territory using third-party PPAs, the primary financing mechanism for schools and other tax-exempt entities. Each individual project can be no larger than 1 MW.

Currently, 40.6 MW, or upward of 80%, of the pilot program’s capacity has been filled and more than 80% of those solar installations are for K-12 public schools. 

At least 90% of the solar projects installed on or near Virginia schools since 2017 involve a PPA. Such agreements benefit schools by allowing them to cover only the costs of the electricity generated because a third party buys, owns and maintains the photovoltaic panels. Schools typically have little or no upfront expenses and usually pay less for electricity.  

Credit: Generation 180 / Courtesy

Smucker and her allies are pushing legislators to dump the 50 MW cap and bump up the maximum size of individual projects to 3 MW.

She pointed to enormous solar projects recently proposed in two northern Virginia counties — Fairfax and Loudoun — that would be in jeopardy because they would bust the current 50 MW cap.  

 “It’s really important that this program be legalized statewide,” Smucker said. “Those limits are really arbitrary.”

A school can save $1 million to $2 million over the span of a PPA, which extends for a minimum of 20 years, she said. That money can be redirected to raises for teachers, hiring staff and investing in school programming.

Dominion, the state’s largest power provider, didn’t offer comment for this article. But in a recent interview, a utility executive told the Energy News Network that Dominion was open to reviewing the policy because enrollment has increased so significantly.

“We remain committed to and support the coordinated expansion of small-scale solar,” said Joe Woomer, vice president of grid and technical solutions for Dominion’s Power Delivery Group. “To fulfill this commitment, we will work with stakeholders to develop an approach to responsibly expand the current 50 MW cap in a way that is equitable to both participating and non-participating customers.”

Dominion Energy executive: ‘We will … get to a 100% carbon-free grid’ »

Appalachian Power is the other, and much smaller, investor-owned utility operating in Virginia. Its territory is in the southwestern part of the state. Only 22kW of solar have been installed on public schools there because of lack of access to PPAs. 

A renewable energy pilot program established in 2017 allows only private, nonprofit higher education institutions to use PPAs in Appalachian Power’s service territory. That pilot has a 7 MW cap and expires in 2022. 

Smucker said that in tandem with tossing the PPA limit for schools and other tax-exempt entities, solar advocates also want to increase current limits on net metering. 

Woomer said in a recent interview that Dominion was also willing to re-examine a state policy that caps met metering at 1%. 

“The idea was: Let’s get going on this and learn so we can adjust the policy appropriately,” Woomer said. “I don’t know that I’ve read anywhere that the 1% cap will be forever. You set limits when you’re not quite sure what the outcome will be so you can measure the unintended and intended consequences.”

In 2017, Generation180 partnered with The Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association to complete a nationwide study and census of solar schools. The nonprofit plans to release an updated version of “Brighter Futures: A Study of Solar in U.S. Schools” early next year. 

Tablan said rooftop or ground-mounted solar arrays are a no-brainer for schools in Virginia and beyond because they have plenty of developed open space, save taxpayers money, expose students to job options and offer the community lessons in clean energy.

She noted that the 86 schools with solar panels make up 3% of all Virginia schools. Still, it’s a huge leap from 2014 when just 321 kW was installed on 13 schools.

If the PPA limit is dropped and all public schools go solar, Generation 180 estimates they could generate enough power to light up all households in Virginia’s capital city, where lawmakers will gather in the new year.  

“Now is the time to move on this,” Smucker said about potential action in Richmond. “As soon as there’s no cap on PPAs, we’re going to see a gold rush of solar in Virginia’s schools and towns.”

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. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.