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New laws expand solar access for Virginians

dominion_Solar_requirements.jpg
Crixell Matthews
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VPM News File
Shutoff requirements are standard for solar installations, and systems in Virginia use a device called an "inverter."

The program is designed for renters or people with lots of tree cover and no rooftop panels.

Dominion Energy’s shared solar program will expand and state regulators will start work on establishing a similar option for Appalachian Power Company customers, per bills sponsored by state Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax).

Shared solar is intended for residential customers — like renters or people with lots of tree cover — who don’t have access to rooftop panels. It’s powered by midscale solar installations, which are larger than single-home units but not as big as utility-scale projects.

A portait of Sen. Surovell
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News File
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, is photographed on Friday, March 15, 2024 in his office in Fairfax, Virginia.

“These programs expand access for people who want solar as their primary energy source,” said Caitlin Vincent, state affairs senior manager for the nonprofit trade group Solar Energy Industries Association.

Dominion has been operating its shared solar program since 2022 at a capacity of 150 megawatts. In a June 2024 memo, the State Corporation Commission ordered Dominion to expand its program capacity to 200 megawatts on July 1 in compliance with the new law. If the company reaches a 90% subscription rate for the program, regulators can increase the program size to 350 megawatts.

Overall, Dominion’s program could produce as much power as about 70,000 small rooftop arrays rated at 5 kilowatts.

Solar facilities that contribute to the program can’t exceed 5 megawatts, or 5,000 kilowatts, which means they’re more likely to be distributed around the state.

Appalachian Power’s program would be smaller — just 50 megawatts to begin with — reflecting its smaller Southwest Virginia service area.

The new laws also require state regulators to take into account the ”benefits of shared solar to the electric grid and to the Commonwealth” when determining the minimum monthly bill for program participants. The SCC previously established a $55 minimum bill for Dominion’s program, which critics said has discouraged signups.

“Having to pay that $55 a month to Dominion still, along with your subscription fee to the solar organization that’s building the shared solar facility, those two things add up to being more expensive than just remaining a normal Dominion customer,” said Josephus Allmond, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Allmond said the law appears to give regulators broad discretion to calculate benefits: The new calculations could take into account the climate benefit of adding more carbon-free generation or the benefit to Dominion of adding generation sources that move the company toward state clean energy requirements. Either way, regulators are required to show their work, specifically outlining costs and benefits used to reach the minimum bill.

The Dominion program’s minimum bill does not apply to low-income customers, defined by the law as those earning 80% or less of their locality’s median income.

Another solar-related measure that is now in effect, sponsored by Del. Rodney Willett (D–Henrico), clears up Virginia law by explicitly allowing customers to lease solar panels.

Leased panels don’t come with upfront installation costs — instead, they’re paid for in fixed monthly payments.

“It makes the decision to install solar more attainable to people of all incomes,” the solar association’s Vincent said.

These laws are part of legislative efforts to spur a transition to renewable, zero-carbon energy sources in Virginia. Dominion and Appalachian Power are required to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, unless high electric demand requires them to keep carbon-emitting plants open.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, Virginia had an estimated solar capacity of 4,304 megawatts in April, up from 3,123 megawatts a year earlier.

Large-scale generation accounted for most of that growth, but small-scale generation — like rooftop and shared solar — grew faster, more than doubling from 266 to 616 megawatts.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is a VPM sponsor.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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