Virginia’s solar industry is on a roll, and its momentum is only expected to gain speed and gigawatts as the state’s 2020 Clean Economy Act kicks in.
Nationwide, Virginia ranked fifth with 236 megawatts of new solar capacity installed in the first quarter of this year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie. That’s more than the state added annually in 2018, 2019 and any year before 2017.
Indeed, the report is just a snapshot of three months. Still, only Texas, California, Florida and Indiana completed more installations than Virginia through March, the report revealed.
To put that in perspective, the entire country installed more than 5 GW of solar capacity during this year’s first quarter. That’s a 46% increase over the first quarter of 2020 and the biggest first quarter on record.
In Virginia, the landmark Clean Economy Act is a major catalyst for the state’s giant jump.
“Broadly, states like Virginia and the Carolinas are leading the charge” on the policy front and stating “this is what’s possible,” said Will Giese, Southeast regional director for the trade association, in an interview.
Giese, who tracks Virginia and 10 other neighboring states, said the “secret sauce” of Virginia’s leap forward is a mix of several ingredients.
One is that the state is well-suited geographically and population-wise for the full array of solar possibilities — utility-scale, rooftop, and community or shared models. Another is the progressive General Assembly that emerged a few years ago when both chambers gained Democratic majorities for the first time in more than a generation.
On the energy policy side, that culminated in legislation essentially saying that Virginia is going to be a leader for the Southeast, Giese said.
States frame their policies to find palatable messages that resonate. While the underlying goal might be to expand their renewable portfolios, they often emphasize the benefits of building a clean economy. States might approach their energy transition by talking about decarbonization, environmental benefits or looking out for ratepayers, but the common goals are to add jobs, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reap the rewards of less pollution.
“The conversation is different, depending on where you go,” Giese said. “But the benefits are the same.”
The Clean Economy Act, which Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law, is an energy omnibus designed to make Virginia’s electric grid carbon-free by 2050. Dominion Energy, by far the state’s largest investor-owned utility, must comply by 2045. Appalachian Power is required to follow suit five years later.
All of that translates to Dominion acquiring 16,000 MW of solar by 2035. Appalachian Power, a subsidiary of American Electric Power, anticipates adding 3,452 MW of solar through 2050.
Giese lauded Virginia for advancing utility-scale solar — traditionally projects larger than 5 MW — but said the state needs to concentrate on expanding access to smaller-scale rooftop access.
“There’s a lot of room to build more rooftop solar,” he said, adding that there’s a “strong case to be made that both are valuable to ratepayers.”
He suggested that legislators should consider increasing choices for residents by expanding the reach of the Clean Economy Act. The next step to unlocking the benefits of rooftop solar is finding out what’s working in other states.
As it stands now, solar energy generates 1.64% of the power in Virginia, according to statistics through the end of last year from the Solar Energy Industries Association. That tally includes 2,310.5 MW installed and 16,000 projects.
Renewable energy pioneer Tony Smith, who delved into the business 40-plus years ago, has watched that number grow from zero — and expects it to keep doing so. He founded Staunton, Virginia-based Secure Futures Solar in 2004.
In his eyes, the Clean Economy Act is just the latest piece of legislation designed to give Virginia a solar boost.
Solar developers caught a huge break seven years ago when they were no longer saddled with an “onerous” machinery and tools tax, Smith said. Then, another lift came a few years later when Virginia approved the concept of third-party power purchase agreements.
In fact, in 2011, his company completed the first power purchase agreement in Virginia at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg before the state even had an official policy. California “invented” the concept almost two decades ago and power purchase agreements are now policy in more than half the states.
He jokes that from 2013 to 2016 Virginia had earned the dubious title of the “darkest state” among solar developers nationwide because of utility opposition and regulatory and legislative barriers.
Now, he said, the state is lighting the way.
“It’s a hockey stick graph,” Smith said about solar’s growth in Virginia. “Solar is already growing and it will continue to grow exponentially.”