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How Virginians are going solar, powered by national program

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Joy Loving bought a Prius in 2012. The purchase was the first of two investments she said she made in a personal effort to save money and reduce her carbon footprint. The second: go solar.

After converting her home to solar energy, Loving began leading solar cooperatives with members of her Harrisonburg community who also were interested in going solar. As rooftop solar systems began popping up across the city, people began to notice.

“I think that's because it's a small city,” Loving said. “Solar panels that are put on roofs are visible in a way, whereas my own solar panels, living out in the county as I do, are viewed only by the cattle and sheep who live in the fields nearby.”

Co-ops such as Solarize Harrisonburg, which Loving founded, were helped off the ground largely by Solar United Neighbors, a national organization dedicated to representing the needs and interests of solar owners and supporters. SUN carries out its mission in two channels: helping homeowners and businesses convert to rooftop solar, and encouraging individuals to fight for their energy rights.

“Our work is dedicated to directing the control of benefits of our energy system back to local communities with distributed 'rooftop' solar as the cornerstone,” Aaron Sutch, SUN’s program director in Virginia, wrote in an email. “We're creating jobs and building clean, resilient energy into our communities while giving consumers energy choice and freedom.

The organization brings individuals and businesses together to create solar co-ops in communities across the nation. Once the co-ops are large enough, SUN pairs the groups with local solar installers. Members of the co-op review different bids and pick an installer they think would work best for their specific needs. The chosen installer then helps individuals within the group create a personalized plan to go solar.

As of November, SUN said it has helped more than 840 Virginia families convert to rooftop solar.

Another key facet of SUN’s mission is encouraging solar homeowners to advocate for their energy rights. An example of this would be the push to lift Virginia’s cap on net metering. Net metering is a policy that compensates solar homeowners who might produce more electricity monthly than they consume from the public utility grid. 

Excess solar energy is fed to the public grid under net metering, and owners can use that surplus to offset their monthly energy bills. 

 The General Assembly passed a bill in March raising Virginia’s net metering cap for not-for-profit solar owners from 1% to 2%. The bill also saw the collective cap for all members of a co-op raised to 7%. This legislation was praised by organizations like SUN.

This bill also enables investor-owned utilities to develop solar projects by allowing Virginians to participate in a voluntary subscription program. While this could allow more solar to be built in Virginia, it falls short of utility-scale solar that would benefit communities.

Sutch said residents should be allowed to participate in community solar projects.

“Community solar enables individuals and businesses to get bill credit from a nearby shared solar project,” he said. “This will allow renters as well as low and moderate-income Virginians to benefit from solar energy even if they are unable to install a system on their own rooftop.”

However, the issue in Virginia, as Sutch pointed out, is that Virginia’s energy system defers to the monopoly created by Dominion Energy. There are currently contracts in place that prevent churches, schools and other municipal buildings from generating their own power outside of energy provided by Dominion, except on rare occasions such as weather emergencies.

“What we see is our energy progress running up against a very powerful special interest that works against the interests of many of the Virginia customers,” Sutch said.

SUN got its start in D.C. in 2009, stemming from the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative originally started by Anya Schoolman. She said her son Walter and his friend Diego watched “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary about climate change, and wanted to help fight the problem by going solar. After realizing that an isolated transition to solar power was complicated and expensive, Schoolman wondered if the answer might be to convert her neighborhood in bulk.

After two weeks, more than 50 neighbors had joined Schoolman in wanting to install solar power on their roofs. The group became D.C.’s first solar co-op and two years later, 45 families in the area were reliant on solar energy.

Schoolman created DC SUN to replicate the success of its neighborhood co-op. Over the next decade, the DC SUN model spread to nearby states. In 2017, Solar United Neighbors became a nationwide program offering memberships. There were seven state programs already in place when it was officially established; now there are 13. In addition to D.C. and Virginia, SUN has memberships in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order in September laying out goals for a future driven by renewable energy. The order called for 30% of the state’s electricity to be supplied by renewable energy by 2030, and 100% of electricity supplied by renewable energy by 2050. 

“Solar energy is a rapidly growing segment of our economy,” Northam stated in a press release. “I am proud that the commonwealth is playing a role in driving this demand and taking advantage of the benefits that this resource provides.”

SUN offers a multitude of other programs aimed at giving Virginians the information they need to go solar. That information can be found on SUN’s website, along with a calendar of events the organization is hosting in the near future.

Loving continues to help establish other solar co-ops in the Shenandoah Valley.

“What we’re doing is educating the citizenry and the customers and other stakeholders of the big utilities, and I think that's a really important mission,” Loving said.

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