News | July 29, 2022

Solar shouldn’t be only for wealthy families. We’re pushing to make sure everyone can go solar.

SELC files petition for reconsideration and clarification in Virginia to ensure low-income families can access shared solar

Larry and Karla Bright own their home in northern Virginia. Thanks to the solar they installed, the couple produces as much electricity as they consume — and they have the utility bill to prove it.

“I pay approximately $7 a month. I feel like I’m very fortunate to have this situation and appreciate the opportunity to produce my own power,” said Larry Bright.

Bright made his comments to Virginia’s State Corporation Commission last fall, when he testified about a program called the Shared Solar Program. Lawmakers created it in 2020 to offer Dominion Energy customers a way to go solar without installing solar panels directly on their roofs.

Lots of Virginians don’t have the option of rooftop solar. …That’s where community solar comes in.

Associate Attorney Josephus Allmond

As Bright told the commission, the program “should provide the same opportunity [my wife and I have] for those that rent or live in a condo complex, particularly those in lower-income neighborhoods,” Bright testified.

Under Virginia’s Shared Solar Program, people taking part will be able to draw power from a solar array that will feed power to lots of households, all at the same time. For many Virginians, community or “shared” solar is the only way to access solar power.

“Lots of Virginians don’t have the option of rooftop solar,” said Southern Environmental Law Center Associate Attorney Josephus Allmond. “Trees might cast too much shade on their roof, or their roof might need some repairs. Or their roof might be in great condition and get full sun, but the residents who live there are renters who don’t own the roof. That’s where community solar comes in.”

Community solar is a powerful way to make renewable technology more accessible. But a recent order by the SCC has put the accessibility of Virginia’s Shared Solar Program in doubt.

The average Dominion utility bill is $117.96 a month according to the utility’s filings in this case. With solar power, average bills are even lower. Most residents — like Larry and Karla Bright — pay utilities like Dominion less than $20 a month for solar power on their own homes.

Yet for Virginians who access solar through the Shared Solar Program, the cost will now be much higher. When lawmakers created the program in 2020, they ordered regulators to set a monthly minimum bill for customers who signed up. Dominion Energy requested to set its monthly minimum bill at $74.28 — more than ten times as much as the monthly charge Virginians like the Brights pay for solar on their own homes.

These costs are unjustified and unfair.

Arlington Resident Jeanne Briksin

“An average bill of $75 for residential customers is way too high,” said Bright. “A $75 minimum bill would put this out of reach for almost everyone that would be interested. It would essentially kill this program before it even starts.”

Bright testified before the State Corporation Commission last fall as regulators considered what figure to use for the Shared Solar Program’s monthly minimum bill.

Virginians from all over the Commonwealth joined Bright in urging the SCC to set the minimum amount that shared solar customers will pay closer to the amount that individual customers currently pay.

“I am asking the commission to consider supporting only the lowest possible cost for the shared solar program,” said Alexandria resident Arina Van Breda. “When people are sitting down figuring out their budget for their power, to add in a minimum that would be so much higher for a lot of people, it would really just discourage participation.”

People who were already participating in a community solar program also testified before the SCC.

“These costs are unjustified and unfair,” said Arlington resident Jeanne Briskin. “These costly charges will punish community solar customers like me and create unnecessary barriers on others who would benefit from solar, which include not only the people that install solar, but all of us in communities that reduce greenhouse gases.”

A solar panel array on fresh green grass.
The solar industry is growing 17 times faster than the overall U.S. economy.

In the end, the SCC did approve a lower minimum monthly bill that shared solar customers will have to pay. But at $55.10, it will still be the highest such charge in the country.

“It is just not economically feasible, and it will drive everybody else in the future that wants to connect not to do it. It will prevent them from wanting to go solar,” said Suffolk resident John Anderson.

The solar industry is growing at a rate 17 times faster than the overall U.S. economy, and the number of jobs it’s creating is growing with it. But even at the $55.10 figure the SCC approved, experts worry that it will still be too expensive to attract developers.

“Dominion wants to charge community solar users like apartments, townhouses and condos ten times the base rate I pay,” said Virginia Beach resident Eric Potter. “It will discourage the adoption of solar power and the creation of local jobs by installers.”

Perhaps most concerning is the possibility that a $55.10 monthly minimum bill to take part in the Shared Solar Program may be out of reach for Virginians who don’t make as much money.

“The costs submitted by Dominion were egregious and would definitely impede the participation of lower-income citizens,” said Van Breda.

It’s critical that all Virginians have access to clean energy and can reap the rewards of lower costs and improved air quality. Making sure the price people pay their utility company is affordable is one way we can make sure solar power is an option for everyone.

Associate Attorney Josephus Allmond

That’s why this week, SELC filed a petition with the SCC to reduce the minimum bill — and affirm that low-income customers are exempt from it.

The petition, which SELC filed jointly with the Coalition for Community Solar Access and on behalf of Appalachian Voices, asks the commission to reconsider its decision. The petition for reconsideration asks the commission to instead approve either CCSA’s proposal for a monthly minimum bill of just $7.58 per month, or a proposal from commission staff themselves of just $10.95 per month. The petition also seeks clarification on what charges low-income customers would need to pay Dominion in addition to the monthly minimum bill.

For residents without as much wealth, it’s perhaps even more important to reduce monthly electricity bills — and an exemption from the monthly minimum bill means that the Shared Solar Program will remain a powerful tool to do it.

“It’s critical that all Virginians have access to clean energy and can reap the rewards of lower costs and improved air quality,” said Allmond. “Making sure the price people pay their utility company is affordable is one way we make sure solar power is an option for everyone.”

We’re powering the sunny South with solar energy.

Unfortunately, Virginians who are not low-income  will do not qualify for the minimum bill exemption.  The SCC’s recent order means community solar will become a de facto premium product available only to wealthy families.

As the cost of solar continues to decline — currently a staggering 2,000 times cheaper than its first commercial use — it’s clear that helping communities transition to renewable forms of energy is critical to “future-proofing” our economy. Prices for wind and solar energy are lower than gas, and they keep going down thanks to innovations in technology.

But until our policies make solar available to all Virginians, whole portions of the Commonwealth will miss out on the benefits of an economy powered by clean renewables like solar and will be forced to shoulder public health costs that other regions don’t have to pay.

“There is only one thing I can do to help protect the environment for my children and grandchildren, and that is to install solar,” Mechanicsville resident James Epps told the SCC. “So last year, I did just that. I’m doing my part. Dominion can move to solar or be left behind. Let’s help Dominion install and sell solar: let’s put solar panels on every school, every shopping center, every commercial building so we can produce power for the people.”

SELC will keep fighting to make sure that in Virginia, we do just that.