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Are the days of affordable solar energy finally here?

Peter Galuszka Mar 27, 2018 1:00 AM

In early March, officials flipped a switch at the hilltop campus of Yogaville-Satchidadananda Ashram about 90 miles west of Richmond in Buckingham County.

Solar panels atop a taupe-colored administration and cafeteria building went online, powering part of the 600-acre retreat facility that draws yoga enthusiasts from all over the world.

By investing $138,000 for the solar project — about half of what it might have cost a few years ago — ashram members hope to save at least $2,000 a month in electricity bills from Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, its supplier. "The savings are really strong," says Joseph Jeeva Abbate, who heads the retreat's energy program.

Scott Elmquist
Yogaville’s administration building has solar panels.

There were other reasons besides money to go solar, Abbate says. What pushed the ashram over the edge was the proposed $6.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, led by Richmond's Dominion Energy, that seemed to threaten the retreat.

 The pipeline would pass close by Yogaville's property. Members feared property degradation, leaks and explosions. They did not see an upside because none of the natural gas it may transport would be used at Yogaville, Abbate says. During the hearing process, the more they studied the pipeline project, the more despondent they got, he notes.

Yogaville is an example of how the once-tiny solar power industry is finally shaking up the power business in Virginia and elsewhere.

Scott Elmquist
Joseph Jeeva Abbate, who heads the retreat’s energy program, shows off solar gear at Yogaville.

Far less polluting than fossil fuel plants such as coal or natural gas, and doesn't have the radioactive waste issues that nuclear power stations do. It doesn't rip up private property in 100-foot-wide rights of way as gas pipelines do.

A tipping point appears to have been reached last year when Dominion, for the first time ever, included solar power in its annual, 15-year plan for power sources.

Its increasingly low installation cost and operational savings can't be denied by Dominion, the state's largest and most powerful utility that for years has shunned solar — saying it was only really a significant energy player when the sun is shining brightly, or, less than 70 percent of the time.

For years, its lobbyists and political donations successfully beat back efforts in the General Assembly to require by law that a certain percentage of power — typically about 20 percent — comes from renewables.

 Other states, such as North Carolina and Maryland, have such measures and are further along with renewables largely because they have had mandatory requirements. Virginia's are voluntary.

According to a 2018 list by Solar Power Rocks, a solar advocacy group that ranks states according to policies favoring solar power, Maryland got an A grade and North Carolina a C this year. Virginia got a D.

Regarding the Old Dominion, the group reported: "Despite strong solar resources and a strong potential foundation for statewide policy, lawmakers have failed to pass or promote meaningful incentives thus far."

 Dominion has steamrolled legislators and regulators from changing the way it liked to do business — namely, with the usual big power stations.

Officials from Dominion say they've strongly supported solar and other renewables but have been waiting for the right time to bring them to Virginia. That time is now, they say.

"We have been doing solar across the country and we decided it was time to bring it to Virginia," says Katharine Bond, Dominion's senior director for corporate policy and strategy and state and local affairs. "We've made the most significant progress in the last three years," she says.

"In 2015," Bond says, "there was one megawatt of solar power (in Dominion's mix) at four sites. In 2017, there are 744 megawatts in construction or operation."

There's more to come. Last year, when Dominion was filing its annual long-range plan with state regulators, it projected that it could have 3,200 megawatts of solar power by 2032, says Dianne O. Costello, Dominion's director of business development, power generation.

Doing the math, however, shows that's a mere 8 percent of today's generating capacity of 26,200 megawatts, which is likely to grow even larger in 15 years.

The largest solar plant in last year's plan is a 100-megawatt solar farm in Southampton County.

For a comparison, consider the generating heft that some of Dominion's plants have. Dominion's Chesterfield Power Station, that runs mostly on coal and is one of the state's largest air polluters, puts out 1,600 megawatts [this has been updated: Depending on what data is used, the plant is one of the top air polluters in the state, but number six compared to some pulp mills]. The North Anna nuclear power station generates 1,790 megawatts.

Dominion Energy
Dominion’s Scott project in Powhatan County features a field of solar panel arrays.

Nevertheless, some of Dominion's fiercest critics acknowledge its move towards more solar and are pleased by it.

 "I think we are definitely seeing a change in how Dominion looks at solar with costs coming down and realizes it can make money there," says Ivy Main, a lawyer and top official with the Virginia Sierra Club.

Others agree that the motive is profit not altruism. "It's seemed they've finally realized they can make money on solar," says Stephen D. Haner, a longtime Richmond lobbyist who represented Newport News Shipbuilding, a huge Dominion customer. He now represents the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Solar's breakthrough has been the result of simple economics and technology. Better design has reduced the costs of solar panels, cells and other gear while manufacturing and installation has become more efficient. At Yogaville, for instance, Sigora, a company based in Waynesboro, installed the panels in only three weeks.

A typical 2,000-square-foot, single-family house usually needs a five-kilowatt system that can generate about 7,000 kilowatt hours of power annually.

Meters record the generation, which is used to offset what homeowners might buy from their utility companies. Within controversial limits, they also can sell power back to the utilities or others.

A system that cost about $30,000 a few years ago now is about half that, according to vendors who sell solar installations. Until 2020, homeowners who buy panels can get a 30-percent federal tax rebate, sweetening the move to solar by reducing costs.

Examples of solar power are unmistakable in the Richmond area.

Just across the street from Stone Brewing and a stop for the new Pulse rapid transit system under construction, the Villas at Rocketts Landing, a community of 45 homes that cost around $250,000 and feature solar panels, is about sold out.

 At the Settler's Landing neighborhood in Midlothian, Charles Gerena is happy with the 24-panel, $18,800 system he installed about a year ago on his two-story house.

Scott Elmquist
The Villas at Rocketts Landing at top are billed as the state’s first solar community.

The Federal Reserve Bank worker says the system generates about $60 of power a month and "has made a huge difference in our electric bill." His bills used to be $100 a month. He's one of the 2,600 Dominion customers that have gone to solar in Virginia. The Richmond Public Schools plan to place solar panels on eight schools for a savings of $2.1 million in electricity costs over 20 years.

Integrated Power Systems of Virginia is busy lining up new customers and uses camera-equipped drones to survey homeowners' roofs to get price estimates, says Sean Ingles, a company official. "We use them to get measurements to design panels," Ingles says.

Solar, however, has hit a bump. Its price drop stalled early this year when the Trump administration slapped a 30 percent tariff on imported solar cells and panels.

The move, which Main of the Sierra Club calls "stupid," is aimed at China, a huge panel-maker that the White House has accused of trying to corner the world market. The tariff seems to be a sop to the fossil fuel industry backed by Trump as he dismantles Barack Obama's efforts to stem carbon emission and climate change.

The tariff could add about $700 to the installation of a typical solar panel system, ending, at least temporarily, the downward trend in panel installation costs.

Installation companies are taking the tariff in stride. Trent Taliaferro, co-owner of solar installer Teakwood Enterprises near Fredericksburg, says his company is adding 8 to 9 percent in solar installation costs.

 Ingles says his company still is hiring more salespeople and that the long-term price trend overall remains downwards. "Indonesia, Germany and the United Kingdom are able to make good panels. There's more manufacturing now," says Ingles, noting that Trump's 20 percent drop on the corporate tax rate mitigates the impact of the solar panel tariffs.

Another, more powerful dynamic has pushed old-style utilities like Dominion to embrace solar.

Such providers like Dominion have argued for years in favor of big fossil fuel or nuclear generating plants, claiming that businesses in the state required sources of large-scale, reliable power.

But a new breed of modern-thinking corporate giants pushing projects in Virginia has turned that type of thinking on its head. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon have made using renewable power a touchstone for their policies to curb global climate change, regardless of what the local utilities think.

As they scour for new operations centers — or, in Amazon's case, a new second headquarters — local politicians and economic development officials are starting to dance to their tune. When Facebook pitched a $1 billion data center in eastern Henrico County last year, it made sure to include a plan from Dominion to provide it with electricity from renewable sources.

When Amazon wants to help supply its many fulfillment centers across the country with power, it keeps its commitment to build its own solar farms and, if necessary, bypass local utilities and sell it wholesale to regional electricity grids. One such regional grid is PJM, which supplies power from Illinois to the East Coast, mostly in the mid-Atlantic. It includes Central Virginia.

 Last year, Amazon announced its commitment to renewable energy and said it would put solar panels on 15 fulfillment centers throughout the country. It also would build wind or solar farms in Ohio, North Carolina, Texas and a solar farm on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

"We are putting our scale and inventive culture to work on sustainability." Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations said. "This is good for the environment, our business and our customers."

Such policies are forcing Dominion to change its attitude as it tries to run to the head of the renewable parade. 

To be sure, Dominion had taken small steps to handle solar power before last year.

In 2013, it started a five-year pilot program that allows participants to sell power back to the utility. The program uses so-called renewable energy certificates to track power sales.

The power company uses such outreach vehicles as its website and public exhibitions to promote solar. One event planned is a "Solarbration" at the Children's Museum of Richmond to teach young people about solar power. It had been scheduled for March 21 but was postponed to April 10 because of bad weather.

And Dominion has worked with such institutions as the University of Virginia and the Navy to place panels in various spots at their facilities.

A big problem with solar is what happens when the sun isn't shining brightly, which can be most of the time. Batteries, especially advanced lithium-ion models, have been pitched as attachments to individual houses or businesses that can store electricity generated by solar panels until it is needed.

Another idea is to create more pumped projects such as one that Dominion has operated in Bath County for about 40 years, Dominion's Bond says. That project features two lakes. One is high on a mountain and the other is lower. They are connected by massive, man-made pipes.

Pumps push water from the lower to the upper lake when demand is light. When demand is strong, water is released from the upper lake through generating turbines, producing extra power.

Last year, legislation was passed so adding more pumped storage projects might be explored. Dominion has teamed with Virginia Tech to look at closed deep coal mines in Southwest Virginia to be used as underground pumped storage projects.

One fundamental and still unaddressed problem with solar power in Virginia is that the state has given utilities a brake with which to limit the growth of solar power.  Solar customers can sell power back to utilities only up to a point when 1 percent of peak demand in the prior year is reached.

In Dominion's case, that's about 190 megawatts. The rationale for the limit is to protect the vast investments utilities have made in transmission facilities. Another point is to shore up utilities' monopolies on power sales. Dominion officials say not to worry because only about 15 percent of the sales limit has been reached. "There's a long way to go," Bond says.

Renewable power proponents believe it's time for power generation to be pursued in a more open, free-market way. Smart, less centralized grids could be developed into which clusters of solar powered houses and businesses sell their power.

Doing so could eliminate the need for more large-scale fossil or nuclear plants. Environmentalists claim that Dominion already is pulling back from its announcements for more gas-fired capacity because of solar.

If that's true, then the need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be in question. And if that happens, then Dominion's and its pipeline partners' claims that eminent domain should be allowed to seize property for the pipeline route could collapse.

Scott Elmquist
Cofounders of RVAAerial Chase Coble and David Schul. Camera-equipped drones are used to survey homeowners’ roofs to get price estimates and measurements for solar panels.

The State Corporation Commission has not yet ruled on such a prospect. Asked about that during a lengthy interview with Style Weekly, Dominion's Bond and Dianne O. Cosello would say only that long-range planning involves several different scenarios. The next 15-year plan is due in May.

Back at Yogaville, Abbate says ashram members are planning their expansion of solar. The Sigora company will soon put in the next half of the 170 panels on the administration building roof.

More panels will be installed and eventually, Yogaville may have two large arrays in a valley on either side of the Lotus worship center, a light blue and pink structure, which is the spiritual heart of the retreat. Its circular interior provides a place to pray and to read about the different religions in the world. One of the array fields would be near the retreat's organic farm, which can feed more than 250 guests at the ashram.

Yogaville has no plans to sell its power and is considering ways to add lithium ion batteries to store home-generated electricity or use during the night and on cloudy days.

Abbate is proud of the ashram's progress with solar so far. Regarding utilities like Dominion, he says: "These companies need to catch on. They need to find a new business model." S