The Future of Virginia’s Solar Market and Its Goal to Leave No Resident Behind

Having the opportunity to power your home with solar energy has historically been a privilege. In Virginia, a typical solar installation in 2020 costs around $13,000 upfront; therefore, as a household’s income increases, so does their likelihood of having an installed solar system, according to a Stanford report. Despite these findings, Virginia is still making an effort to leave no resident behind in the state’s growing solar power market.

The Solar Energy Industries Association reported that Virginia has already invested more than $1.24 million in solar in an effort to move the state towards a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The declining cost of solar, which has fallen by 40% over the past 5 years in Virginia, has presented an opportunity for solar to be highly influential in the state’s clean energy plans.

As of April 2020, only about 1.06% of Virginia’s electricity is supplied by solar. But that number is bound to increase over the next few decades, in large part due to the passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act

The passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act earlier this year set Virginia on a path to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which is a regional cap and trade program on emissions in the electric sector throughout ten Northeastern states. Virginian utilities will begin trading RGGI allowances in 2021. 

The bill also establishes a schedule that requires Dominion Energy and American Electric Power, Virginia’s two biggest electric utilities, to construct, acquire, or agree to purchase solar or onshore wind sites that will replace the capacity of carbon-emitting plants that must be shut down. Dominion has already committed to 3000 megawatts of wind and solar energy by 2022.

In addition to requiring utilities to clean up their power sources, the Virginia Clean Economy Act requires investor-owned utilities to consult with the Clean Energy Advisory Board on how best to inform low-income customers of opportunities to lower electric bills through access to solar energy. Primarily, the Board will develop a program that utilizes the Low-to-Moderate Income Solar Loan and Rebate Fund to disburse money for solar installations in low- and moderate-income households so that all Virginians have access to solar power. Delegate Lashrecse Arid (D-Petersburg) spearheaded the legislation that created this board in 2019, to be sure the people in her district had access to the savings and opportunities that come with modernizing and decarbonizing the grid.

“My district has some of the highest energy burdens in the commonwealth,” Del. Aird told Climate XChange. She represents the city of Petersburg, Dinwiddie County, and parts of Chesterfield County. “An overwhelming number of constituents [have] energy burdens between 5% and 22%.” 

What is an energy burden?

An energy burden is the percentage of household income that is spent on energy costs (electricity, home heating, and transportation). According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, an affordable energy burden should not exceed 6%. Low-income households in the Southeast and Appalachia — including western parts of Virginia — have some of the highest energy burdens in the country, but an on-site solar installation could save these same households around $20,000 over the lifetime of their residential solar installation.

The Clean Energy Advisory Board is looking at ways to reduce household energy burdens. “One of the purposes of this project is to create energy equity,” said Carrie Hearne, Solar Program Coordinator at the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy.

With access to solar systems and the energy savings they provide increasing throughout the state, Virginia’s solar industry has the potential to create new clean energy jobs.. The solar industry in Virginia currently employs upwards of 4,000 people, and more people will need to be trained for these jobs as demand increases. The Solar Hands-on Instructional Network of Excellence (SHINE) aims to do just that.

What is SHINE?

SHINE is a public-private partnership focused on building innovative solar career pathways in Virginia. In the past, the state has not boasted a huge solar market, and therefore, many solar installation jobs went to out-of-state workers. The founders of SHINE, including the Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (MDV-SEIA) and Southside Virginia Community College, noticed this trend and launched a training program to help keep solar jobs in-state.

With the anticipated growth of the solar industry in Virginia, SHINE aims to “develop a qualified, diverse, equitable, and inclusive solar workforce.” Currently, solar industry workers are predominantly white, but the expansion of renewable energy offers a unique opportunity to overcome the energy injustices of the past. In 2019, minorities held a mere 14.7% of electric power generation, distribution, and transmission jobs. Women are also underrepresented, holding just 19.8% of the same jobs. “We want to make sure that our workforce is representative of the communities that exist in Virginia,” said Rachel Smucker, who serves as the Virginia Policy & Development Manager at MDV-SEIA. Her detailed report on the development of solar energy in the state can be found here.

SHINE is a two-week program that provides Virginians with the knowledge and skills that they need to fill the tens of thousands of solar jobs that they expect to be generated in the next few years. After their completion of hands-on and classroom work, graduates of the SHINE program have the opportunity to interview with solar developers and construction companies in the state.  A lot of scheduled SHINE program dates were pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the organization is working on rescheduling planned programming in partnership with the Virginia Department of Corrections for people that have repaid their debt to society.  David Peterson, SHINE’s Executive Director, is excited to get back to providing people with an opportunity to get started in the solar market. The program, which is still in its infancy, has 30 graduates to date, the majority of which have been from traditionally marginalized communities.

Providing Virginians with these well-paying jobs is one of the key goals of SHINE, and the focus on equity gives the solar industry the potential to be a champion of both environmental and racial justice.

The passing of the Virginia Clean Economy Act has accelerated the transition to clean energy in the state while simultaneously expanding the solar market in Virginia. This trend could mean energy savings for all Virginians, and the efforts from state bodies like the Clean Energy Advisory Board will be essential in the establishment of energy equity in the years to come. Great work is being done in Virginia, but the state still has a long way to go. Programs like SHINE should be supported and expanded if the state is to make the benefits of a clean energy economy accessible to every Virginian.

Featured Image: Community solar farm. Photo: Khairil Yusof on Flickr