Ruling could open the door for Virginia’s solar market

A recent finding supported the type of arrangements that facilitated installing solar on six schools in Virginia's Albermarle County schools.

A Virginia State Corporation Commission hearing examiner has turned aside a utility’s claims that customers in its area were forbidden from entering into contracts with third parties to provide solar energy for their homes.

The ruling rejected Appalachian Power Company’s contention that financing structures known as “power purchase agreements” – or PPAs – were illegal in Virginia. A PPA is an agreement where, typically, a homeowner or other consumer contracts with a company to install solar panels through a payment or financing plan that reduces or eliminates the up-front costs.

“This decision is an important win for solar rights in Virginia, which has continued to lag behind neighboring states on solar because of outdated policies and utility opposition like we saw from Appalachian Power in this case,” said Will Cleveland, staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The ruling confirms that Virginians have the right to use common sense financial tools to choose solar power without utilities acting as the middle men.”

PPAs have been a contentious issue for state utilities as they fight to keep customers from generating their own power. But in 2013, the Virginia legislature set up provisions for a pilot program in Dominion Virginia Power’s service area that allowed PPAs. Prior to that, Dominion also rejected the notion of PPAs.

Appalachian Power tried to argue that PPAs were narrowly allowed only under approved utility pilot programs like Dominion’s.

SELC represented the Sierra Club, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Appalachian Voices to challenge the utility’s restrictive stance. Solar industry organizations, consumer groups, and members of the public also weighed in to support solar financing opportunities and against the utility’s restrictive arguments. The hearing examiner agreed Appalachian Power’s interpretation was incorrect.

If the full commission upholds the ruling this fall, it will further open Virginia markets to new solar businesses and jobs, and it will make solar power more accessible for state residents.

Virginia has lagged behind regional states in the embrace of solar power. The Old Dominion ranks 32 among states for installed solar projects. North Carolina ranks third. North Carolina has nearly three times as many solar jobs as Virginia.

As an example of the promise of PPAs, the pilot program from Dominion Power recently allowed six schools in the Albemarle County School District to install solar panels on their roofs, with students leading the charge.

Read the decision here.

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