Solar panels
Credit: Markus Spiske / Creative Commons

By now, solar trailblazer Tony Smith figured he would be on the verge of linking at least 100 low-income households in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with affordable power from the sun.

Secure Solar Futures, the Staunton-based company he leads, had selected an ideal 10-acre, south-facing site in Augusta County for the 1.2-megawatt project. It carried a $2 million price tag and was set to go online after July 2023, per Virginia’s recent community solar law.

County officials heartily embraced Smith’s plan and praised his vision to preserve the region’s agricultural traditions by grazing sheep among the arrays.

And, in the spirit of a true community solar venture, the developer had partnered with an energy-centric nonprofit in nearby Charlottesville to identify potential customers. 

“People want to feel a connection to where their energy is produced,” Smith said about seeking local customers. “That’s part of our game plan.”

What could possibly derail such a well-intentioned plan? 

As it turns out, plenty. 

But the major obstacle emerged when Smith broached Dominion Energy in August 2021 about interconnecting the project to the distribution grid. 

Dominion rejected the proposal. In the ensuing back-and-forth, Secure Futures discovered that Plan B would mean footing an extra $1 million bill to install a type of fiber optic wire known as dark fiber between the array and the substation to meet Dominion’s standards.

“Suddenly, the project would cost $3 million,” Smith said. “That made it too expensive. To make it appealing to low-income customers, the price has to be less expensive than the rate they’re already paying to Dominion.”

For distributed energy, Dominion frames dark fiber as a reliability and safety necessity. In tandem, the utility insisted that Smith’s proposed array be able to go offline within one-sixth of a second of a power outage being detected. 

That surprise blink-of-an-eye demand has stalled Smith’s array — but not his resolve.

“We were shocked to get this news from Dominion, because no other utility has these requirements,” he said, noting a two-second shutoff is the industry standard. “But we’re still trying to make this project happen.”

Dominion spokesperson Jeremy Slayton didn’t comment on this specific case.

Generally, he said, the utility administers regulations laid out in Chapter 314 of the Virginia code that governs the interconnection of small electric generators in a “consistent and equitable manner” for all customers that “desire to operate generation in parallel with the Company’s distribution grid.”

He added that Dominion performs site-specific, customized interconnection studies to identify modifications needed to ensure the safety, reliability, and operability of the grid.  

In May, the State Corporation Commission opened a docket to comprehensively explore interconnection issues related to distributed energy resources.

“Dominion … looks forward to continuing to participate in this docket as it evolves,” Slayton said.

Solar industry: Dark fiber an onerous burden

For Smith’s project to come to fruition, Virginia’s solar industry will likely have to convince utility regulators that developers in Dominion territory, especially small ones, not be saddled with installing expensive dark fiber when other — and cheaper — existing technology can meet the same safety and reliability standards.

Dominion evidently insists that dark fiber should be the heart and lungs of grid equipment known as Direct Transfer Trip, or DTT. 

The Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association, or CHESSA, challenged Dominion’s dark fiber assertion in testimony submitted to Virginia utility regulators this summer. 

“This [DTT] requirement is an unnecessary and arcane approach to addressing anti-islanding, given the fact that certified inverters already perform this function,” said GreeneHurlocker attorneys representing CHESSA. 

With DTT costs averaging $2 million to $3 million — and reaching as high as $7 million, CHESSA and Coalition for Community Solar Access have withdrawn multiple projects in Virginia.

CHESSA noted that states with high levels of distributed energy penetration have “long moved away from requiring DTT and instead use inverter-based solutions.”

Virginia solar developers agree that it’s unfair for the first project in the queue at a substation to bear the financial brunt of an entire substation upgrade that essentially becomes a grid modernization project. CHESSA also noted that some states are exploring the idea of cost-sharing among distributed energy projects. 

Cliona Robb, an energy attorney for 22 years, is frustrated that Smith’s project is being stymied by Dominion’s dark fiber rationale when she says the utility is clearly an outlier on that front. In August, she filed comments with the commission on behalf of Secure Futures.

“The message is that you can get solar, as long as it’s utility solar. Otherwise, you’re out of luck,” said Robb, of Richmond-based Thompson McMullan. “It’s outrageous to me that a utility can unilaterally adopt a practice that’s not consistent with industry standards.”

In her comments to regulators, she outlined several changes that would help smaller solar developers complete projects without bankrupting themselves.

For instance, Robb urged commissioners to adopt a rule eliminating the need for dark fiber for interconnections under 5 MW. In Virginia, Level 2 interconnections generally apply to projects between 500 kW and 2 MW, while Level 3 projects can be up to 20 MW.

As well, she advised that expenses for those smaller projects be limited to the cost of inverters and reclosers and not costs related to upgrades to a utility’s substations or other pieces of its distribution system. As well, she said, inverters or cellular communications should be the standard in lieu of dark fiber.

Robb pointed to a case study published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) concluding that DTT cellular communications provided an efficient and cost-effective approach for utility communications with distributed generation systems.

The study looked at three installed DTT systems — one in Central Virginia Electric Cooperative territory and two in Dominion’s service area. It compared copper telephone lines to cellular communications. The latter was considered because the authors noted that fiber installation is not always feasible because it can be cost-prohibitive.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is the professional body that sets scores of standards, including one that covers inverters and minimum distributed energy performance requirements. Secure Futures and other developers maintain that Dominion’s strict interpretation of that standard is squeezing their projects.

Even if Secure Futures did splurge on fiber optic cable for its Augusta County project, Smith noted that it would be using only two of the 24 total “strands.” 

“So, the other 22 fibers would be dedicated to some other purpose not involving our project,” Smith said. “With that, Dominion is putting the cost of infrastructure development on the backs of solar developers.”

Slayton, the Dominion spokesperson, said the inverter performance criteria is not related to the dark fiber requirement. He noted that the inverter specifics had been among the utility’s protection requirements since September 2016. 

No shortage of feedback to commissioners

Utilities, installers, environmental advocates and others in the solar community flooded regulators’ inboxes after the May request for comments.

Two of the eight questions commissioners asked participants to address small solar generators. In addition to dark fiber, solar advocates weighed in on a number of interconnection concerns, including lengthy timeliness, excessive studies, lack of transparency and dispute resolution.

The state General Assembly recognized the benefits of distributed energy by passing both the Virginia Clean Economy Act and a shared solar statute in 2020. 

Those and other clean energy laws prompted regulators to update interconnection rules from more than a decade ago. However, advocates had complained that those tweaks weren’t adequate enough to match the rising volume of interconnection applications.

“While the changes made to the rules provided modest improvements to the process, the distribution interconnection process continues to be antiquated and ill-prepared for the 21st century grid,” CHESSA wrote. “The existing procedures [are] not sufficient to enable the amount of renewable energy additions required by the Commonwealth’s transformational energy goals.”

Dominion submitted 15 pages of comments. Two of those pages addressed regulators’ query about how commissioners could facilitate its approach to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standard on inverters and distributed energy.

Dominion stated that it believes any use of distributed energy “ride-through or voltage regulation functionalities should be at the Company’s discretion and evaluated based on system needs on a case-by-case basis.”

The utility told commissioners that the regulations centering on the standard don’t need to be revised.

“Specifically,” commission staffers summarized, “Dominion commented that anti-islanding functions of [distributed energy resources] inverter-based resources alone do not replace the multiple functions and layered protection that DTT provides to the electric power system.” 

On Sept. 19, commission staff released a 57-page action plan, of sorts, after reviewing input. They concluded that some concerns could be addressed immediately, others would be more time-consuming and still others would likely require a separate docket.

“The requirement for usage of dark fiber-optic cable for DTT implementation was one of the most pressing issues commented on by the parties,” commission staffers said.

Solar developers echoed Secure Futures’ concerns about dark fiber. However, they also pointed out that the fiber can cost more than $250,000 per mile to install. The total price tag is a blow to project planners because utilities don’t deliver those cost estimates until the “facilities study phase,” the final study phase of a long and involved process.

Smith said he is disappointed that working groups will likely be handling the issues delaying his Augusta County project — dark fiber and the excessive cost of interconnection — in a far-off timeline. 

 “We have a need for speed,” he said. “But we’re looking at four to six years until anything is settled.

“In the meantime, while Rome burns, solar investment will bypass Virginia. Social policy and interconnection barriers are hindering the promise of solar.” 

Robb, his attorney in this case, said commissioners need to be aware of the damage they are inflicting by pushing immediate concerns off to slow-moving work groups instead of acting themselves.

“Not advancing community solar is harming the public interest,” she said.

Secure Futures leader no solar novice

Smith, who founded Secure Futures in 2004, is no clean energy rookie. The entrepreneur has been immersed in solar since 1978 when he created his first job in the industry with the Philadelphia Solar Energy Association.

Thus far, his Staunton company has developed more than 11 MW of arrays in Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas. 

Five years ago, the business became a certified B Corporation to reflect its commitment to solving social and environmental problems. It prides itself on innovations in financing, public policy and energy education that extend the reach and affordability of solar power.

For instance, that spirit is reflected in an endeavor Smith’s company is undertaking in the state’s seven historic coalfield counties, at the behest of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia. 

A public-private partnership launched in September 2020, appropriately named Securing Solar for Southwest Virginia, is in the midst of installing 12 MW of solar arrays at five commercial buildings, five multifamily housing units and 10 schools. The optimistic completion date is next year.

Relatedly, Smith viewed the Augusta County project as an innovation to connect underserved Virginians with community solar, a new concept in Dominion territory.

He praised the utility for setting up a program but lamented how interconnection challenges are “killing it on the implementation side.”

Dominion’s program, set to debut next year, sprang from state legislation passed in 2020. Initially, total capacity will be capped at 150 MW. Both solar and environmental justice advocates had lauded the law for requiring that at least 30% of the enrolled customers qualify as low-income. If that bar was met, the program could grow by another 50 MW.

In addition, no single community solar project could be larger than 5 MW. The idea was to incrementally stimulate a series of small-scale distributed generation projects, roughly 1 MW apiece.

This summer, regulators set off an uproar among solar advocates by allowing Dominion to charge a $55 monthly minimum fee to enrollees. The legislation had included a measure allowing commissioners to set a monthly fee that let Dominion account for costs of implementing shared solar and for use of the grid infrastructure.

Low-income subscribers, however, are exempt from that minimum fee. Aiding that poorer audience is why Secure Futures sought out a local collaborator in Augusta County.

Now, that affiliation also might be unraveling.

Due to delays, it’s not clear where the partnership with the Charlottesville-based Local Energy Alliance Program now stands. Leaders of the nonprofit didn’t return requests for comment. Since 2010, LEAP has offered home and commercial energy upgrades, as well as solar services.

Even though Smith has “come to the sad conclusion that we’re not going to get any help on the regulatory level,” he is forging ahead. 

After withdrawing the project in April, Secure Futures is now in the midst of resizing it and preparing a new interconnection application. 

“We’ll see what happens,” Smith said. “We’re not holding our breath.”

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.