Solar panels
Credit: Jack Haskell / Creative Commons

Come summer, residents of Harrisonburg, Virginia, should be able to shop locally for solar power as the city’s municipal utility becomes the first in the state to offer a community solar option to customers.

The electrons will flow to the grid from Acorn Solar, a 1.4-megawatt array being developed by Dominion Energy on a 10-acre plot the city purchased for $550,000.

Brian O’Dell, general manager of Harrisonburg Electric Commission.
Brian O’Dell, general manager of Harrisonburg Electric Commission. Credit: Courtesy

Brian O’Dell, general manager of Harrisonburg Electric Commission (HEC), is relieved that panels are on the verge of being planted in the industrially zoned acreage more than three years after talks began with Dominion. The land is along Acorn Drive, the project’s namesake.

The buy-in program — dubbed Friendly City Solar as a tribute to the Shenandoah Valley city’s long-standing nickname — will be open to residential customers willing to pay a few extra pennies per kilowatt-hour for electricity. About 18,000 of HEC’s total 21,600 customers fall into the residential category.

It’s ideal for those supportive of renewable energy but unable or unwilling to install their own rooftop arrays.

“In our community and the Shenandoah Valley, there seems to be healthy appetite for renewable energy,” said O’Dell, who is in his 10th year on the job. “We felt there was a strong demand for community solar because not everyone can put solar on a rooftop.”

Barriers to rooftop installations include lack of money, shaded southern exposure and being a renter. Harrisonburg, flush with colleges and poultry processing plants, has a high number of landlord-operated properties.

The preliminary subscription model is similar to what Virginia rural electric cooperatives offer to their solar customers. HEC’s target is to allow customers to purchase solar power in 50 kWh blocks, in proportion to their annual electricity consumption. The average residence uses about 1,000 kWh monthly.

“We want to be set up to fully subscribe but also to have as many participants as possible,” O’Dell said. “We’re ready to get feedback from our customers to understand what those goals should be.”

If the five members of the HEC board greenlight the program at a March 22 meeting, it’s expected to go online in July.

Local siting crucial

Dominion is the right partner for the solar project because HEC has a long-term contract to buy its electricity from the investor-owned utility, O’Dell said. That 20-year pact expires in 2031.

What took time was shaping the parameters of Acorn Solar so it would not only fit into the confines of that power supply contract but also accomplish local climate and accessibility goals.

For instance, O’Dell said, one key provision was siting the array within the city’s geographical footprint so HEC could reduce its purchase of carbon-based fuels.

“I can assure you that this opportunity did not come looking for us,” he said about the diligence required for HEC to be a solar pioneer. “We worked hard for years to get this arrangement put together on paper and even harder on where it is actually going to be built.”

Dominion, which will own and operate Acorn Solar, is contracting with Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe Solar to construct the array. HEC will buy energy from it via a power purchase agreement.

Erich Fritz, who manages power delivery business development for Dominion, referred to the project as “very unique.” Discussions between the two parties began in late 2018.

“This is our first partnership with a municipal utility and right now we’re not working on any others,” Fritz said. “We’re hoping in the future there will be other opportunities.”

He added that he wasn’t aware of any other municipal utilities outside of Dominion’s service area collaborating on a similar setup. 

HEC is one of seven utilities that contracts with Dominion for its power supply as part of the Virginia Municipal Electric Association. 

That joint action agency is a subset of the Municipal Electric Power Association of Virginia, which represents 16 entities statewide buying power from a range of wholesale power suppliers. 

O’Dell is accustomed to hearing from critics who maintain that Harrisonburg is too slow to wean itself of fossil fuels because of its lengthy Dominion contract.

In response, he points to research from the State Corporation Commission confirming that HEC residential rates for electricity are consistently the lowest in the state. 

“Though the contract is unpopular in some respects and restrictive with renewable energy, it has been beneficial to Harrisonburg and ratepayers when it comes to the cost of power from the grid,” O’Dell said. “In this business, short-term is not necessarily good.”

Community solar slow to evolve

O’Dell said he persisted with this latest solar offering because savvy residents have insisted that the utility not stagnate. Relatedly, back in 2019, HEC answered residents’ pleas to bump up solar access by expanding access to net metering for rooftop arrays.

Friendly City Solar is designed so customers who opt in will cover the cost of joining the renewable energy venture.

“Those that want the renewable energy should be the ones who pay for it,” O’Dell said. “Those who don’t want to participate shouldn’t have to.”

Preliminary numbers show the monthly purchase of a 50 kWh block would cost a customer $5.75. While that breaks down to a cost per kWh roughly 3 cents higher than HEC’s regular residential energy rates, it’s locked in for 25 years for initial subscribers and intentionally doesn’t include a fuel charge.

As Friendly City Solar follows a subscription model, customers do not earn a credit for power generated by the array. Typically, that credit model involves customer ownership of a local array.

While HEC’s Acorn project is not a direct result of community solar legislation the Virginia General Assembly passed in 2017, that law did prompt Dominion Energy to start figuring out how to fold community solar of some sort into its portfolio.

In a nutshell, SB 1393 required Dominion and Appalachian Power to conduct a community solar pilot program for retail customers. Utility regulators laid out the law’s parameters in 2018.

That law set off alarm bells among utility watchdogs who gave it a passing grade for advancing the solar piece but a failing one on the community end.

They said that, unlike a competing bill that was nixed, this one granted too much control to the investor-owned utilities and didn’t guarantee that the small-scale projects would be close to the localities they were serving. 

In the meantime, thousands of customers are enrolled in the SB 1393-affiliated community solar program Dominion is rolling out in late spring or early summer, said utility spokesperson Lucy Rhodes. She noted that the first such project is already energized.

O’Dell is grateful the basics of community solar eventually entered Dominion’s lexicon. That common ground helped HEC find a home for an idea that, in the beginning, wasn’t gaining traction.

“At first, we tried a few options that didn’t fit,” O’Dell said about experimenting with different paths. “Then, when Dominion was going to start with community solar, we hit it off.”

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.