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Jeffrey Knight

Senate Advances Bill Expanding Access to Renewable Energy

Residential rooftop solar panels in the Fulton neighborhood in Richmond. Photo by Jeffrey Knight

By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service 

RICHMOND, Va. – A bill that would allow state residents, nonprofits and schools to more easily seek and secure alternative energy sources such as rooftop solar recently passed the Senate by a vote of 22-18.

Senate Bill 710, patroned by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, cleared the hurdle on crossover day, the last day for each chamber to advance its own legislation before it dies. 

McClellan’s amended bill helps remove some barriers that make it harder for individuals and organizations to access energy alternatives outside of public utility providers such as Dominion Energy.

One of those barriers makes it difficult for nonprofits to reap the rewards of private renewable energy generation under current law. Nonprofit entities like churches and some schools don’t qualify for a 26% federal tax credit to implement solar systems. This deters some nonprofits and those who don’t qualify for the tax incentive from generating their own renewable energy because of the up-front price of these projects. 

Many of these organizations are opting for third-party solar contracts, to either lease a system or to pay for energy use. A customer can lease a solar energy system from an installer or developer and pays to use it for a period of time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Alternatively, a power purchase agreement allows customers to pay a solar developer an agreed-upon rate for energy use, usually a lower price than what the local utility charges. 

“The beauty of the third-party solar contract is that the third party is not only installing the panels, they are usually helping to finance it too,” said Bob Shippee, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter legislative chair. “This means the schools or governmental agencies do not have to go through the capital budgeting process and they start seeing savings on electricity from day one.”

The current law caps third-party power purchase agreements on renewable energy generation at 50 megawatts in Dominion territory and seven megawatts for Appalachian Power territory. Dominion would have a tenfold increase to 500 megawatts, while Appalachian Power would have a limit of 40 megawatts, according to the bill.

“We support our Virginia customers using more renewable energy and hope any legislation would ensure the fair and equitable distribution of energy cost to consumers across our footprint,” Rayhan Daudani, Dominion Energy spokesman said in an email. 

Consumer solar prices have dropped 36% over the past five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s recent data. Virginia residents get 1% of their power from solar energy, the association said. 

Homeowners have been joining “solar cooperatives” to help households convert to solar power, but churches, schools and other municipal buildings are not allowed to generate their own power outside of energy provided by Dominion -- except on rare occasions such as weather emergencies.

The average monthly consumption of energy for Virginia residents is 1,165 kilowatt hours per month according to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A kilowatt hour is the measurement of how much energy is used when a 1,000-watt appliance runs for an hour, according to an OVO Energy article. One megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts. 

The proposed legislation would allow non-residential customers to increase their system capacity from one to three megawatts of energy. By law residential customers can generate up to 20 kilowatts. 

Shippee said the current cap on third-party renewable energy generation projects impacted savings and jobs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. 

“That is savings those taxpayers can’t get until those laws are changed,” Shippee said. “The savings flow right to the taxpayer.” 

The bill also raises the cap from 1% to 6% on the amount of solar or renewable energy that can be net metered in a utility service area. Net metering is when an individual who produces their own electricity from solar power uses less electricity than they generate. The excess electricity is then sold back to the utility grid in exchange for a reduction in the customer’s power bill, according to the SEIA

Some lawmakers also want the State Corporation Commission to regulate third-party renewable energy developers. The current bill does not give the commission jurisdiction to regulate the terms and conditions of third-party power purchase agreements. 

“We are putting a lot of additional costs that we are unsure of on the backs of our ratepayers and this is another one of those costs,” said Sen. William DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach during a Senate floor meeting ahead of the vote. 

Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, introduced a similar bill in the House that passed with a 67-31 vote.

Many renewable energy bills survived crossover including the Clean Economy Act (HB1526 and SB851), the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act (HB981 and SB1027) and HB234, which would develop an offshore wind plan.

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House bill protecting student journalists advances, Senate bill tabled

Studentjournalists01

By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service 

RICHMOND, Va. – Students, faculty and advocates lined up at the podium Wednesday to voice support and concern for a bill that would extend free speech protection to student journalists. Some students traveled from Northern Virginia and Culpeper to snag a spot in the crowded House subcommittee room in support of First Amendment rights and to meet with legislators on National Student Press Freedom Day. 

House Bill 36, patroned by former WDBJ journalist Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, advanced out of subcommittee on a 5-3 vote. The bill grants student journalists in school-sponsored media at public middle, high and higher education institutions the right to exercise freedom of speech and the press. The bill also protects advisers working with the student journalists. 

Hurst’s bill would allow schools to intervene and exercise restraint only in situations of slander, libel, privacy, danger or violations of federal or state law. 

“We’ve been very lucky,” said Joseph Kubicki, a senior at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford. “Our current principal, school board and superintendent have been very supportive of the student press.” 

Margaret Vaillant, former student and editor in chief of Madison County High School’s newspaper, shared her reasons for supporting the bill. 

“The lesson I learned as a high school newspaper editor is that facts only matter when it’s not embarrassing to the people in charge,” Vaillant said at the podium. 

Vaillant wrote an editorial in 2011 about the disrepair of Madison County High School’s facilities, which she said led to the newspaper adviser’s ouster.  

Stacy Haney, chief lobbyist of the Virginia School Boards Association, voiced opposition to the bill.

 “I want to point out to the committee that this legislation also applies to students who are in middle school,” Haney said. “I ask that you think about the maturity level and where we need to be with middle school students.”

Haney referenced the landmark 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines which allows students First Amendment rights as long as it does not disrupt learning. 

“Tinker already applies,” said Haney. “Student are protected in their speech under the Tinker standard.”  

 Still, some public school boards have been able to censor school-sponsored student media.

Last year, the Frederick County School Board approved a policy that designates the principal of the school as the editor of student publications. The board declared that school publications must have “curriculum approved by the school board” and are not “intended to provide a public forum for students or the general public.”

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, commended student journalists for their work.

“I think student journalists play the same role that professional journalists play and that is to hold people in power accountable and to make sure that tax dollars get spent the way they should,” Edwards said in a phone interview.

She added that middle and high school student journalists “are more mature than we probably give them credit for.” The maturity level of middle and high school student journalists was a major opposition point during the meeting. 

The bill is similar to several across the country known as “New Voices” bills that aim to protect student media from censorship. New Voices is a student-led grassroots movement that aims to negate the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier which ruled that schools may censor student media to an extent. 

Currently 14 states have passed New Voices legislation and 11 have bills in motion, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Senate Bill 80, a companion bill, patroned by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, was recently tabled to the 2021 session in a 1-13 vote.

Hurst was optimistic his bill will move forward during this session. He first introduced the bill in the 2019 session with co-patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, but the bill died in a subcommittee vote, 3-5. 

“I think the fate of this bill will be good,” said Hurst. “The General Assembly will see that this is an important provision to put into our code to protect journalists whether you are in high school, college or a professional.”

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