Southwest Virginia schools can finally go solar

New Appalachian Power Co. contracts will open net-metering and PPAs to schools

New solar contracts mean it’s now easier for schools and localities in Southwest Virginia to harness the energy of the sun. (© Emily Richardson-Lorrente)

Local government officials and Appalachian Power Co. announced new contracts this month permitting public schools and localities in the utility’s Southwest Virginia territory to use crucial financing programs to install solar projects.

It’s a significant victory for schools and localities in the coalfields that have been functionally shut out from installing solar energy for years.

Since 2017, Appalachian Power has effectively blocked all solar energy projects on public schools and local government buildings in Southwest Virginia through a contract that gave the utility virtual veto power over the financial arrangements necessary to install them.

Despite the fact that 60 percent of students in Southwest Virginia qualify for free and reduced lunch, Appalachian Power’s contract didn’t allow the public schools that serve them — schools that have no ability to pay for solar panels up front — to utilize net-metering beyond a very low cap or power purchase agreements (PPAs).

Both are crucial tools for schools in low-income areas that can’t otherwise afford the costs of installing solar panels, instead requiring the solar installer to front all associated costs and sell energy back to the school at an agreed-upon rate, crediting them for excess energy they produce.

Yet until this month, PPAs were not available to public schools in Southwest Virginia. Without PPAs, net-metering, which was subject to a low cap on the program capacity, was largely unavailable, too.

“The opportunities [for solar] that exist in the rest of the state don’t happen here,” Appalachian Voices’ Regional Director of Community and Economic Development Adam Wells told SELC in a 2019 episode of our podcast Broken Ground. “It could be really easy if the laws were different.”

Now, they finally are. Thanks in part to the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, a coalition that includes both Appalachian Voices and SELC, the new contracts Appalachian Power will sign will give public schools and localities in the Virginian coalfields access to the financing options they need to tap into all the benefits of clean energy through solar.

“We applaud the efforts of the localities in Southwest Virginia to expand access to solar energy, supporting a local solar energy economy and helping to lower electricity bills for our local governments at a time when funds are severely limited,” said Chelsea Barnes, legislative director with Appalachian Voices.

Particularly against the passage of last year’s Virginia Clean Economy Act to promote a more equitable clean energy transition, these new contracts are critical to expanding access to solar in the former coalfields of Southwest Virginia, a region of the Commonwealth that once powered the nation, but is now uniquely vulnerable to rising energy costs, loss of jobs, and out-migration.

“We’ve seen how successful these agreements can be in bringing solar within reach, improving resilience and moving us to cleaner energy sources," said Senior Attorney Lauren Bowen. "This move has been a long time coming, and we’re thrilled that this region of Virginia finally has access to the tools necessary to benefit from solar."

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