Despite Challenges, Virginia Cities Envision a Bold Clean Energy Future

Arlington, Virginia, is stepping up on climate action by increasing its share of on-site solar energy. Photo by Arlington Department of Environmental Services/Flickr

U.S. solar power is booming, poised to grow 12% nationally this year, but so far, Virginia hasn’t been a big part of the boom. With only 775 megawatts of installed solar capacity, solar represents about 1% of Virginia’s electricity consumption. That’s enough to power just 87,000 of the state’s 2.7 million households. Next-door neighbor North Carolina has seven times as much installed solar capacity, enough to fuel 660,000 homes.

How can two similarly sunny states have such different solar output? Much of it comes down to state policies. In the past 15 years North Carolina passed numerous solar-friendly policies, like the 2007 Renewable Energy and Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) that mandated 12.5% of retail electricity sales come from renewable sources and 2017’s Competitive Energy Solutions for North Carolina law that allows for market competition. The Virginia state legislature has been slow to enact such policies, making it difficult to finance and build new solar projects and limiting the clean energy options available for residents, businesses and local governments.

But despite the state’s lack of policy drivers, Virginia’s cities and counties are banding together to find ways to implement renewables and meet their clean energy goals. Like cities across the U.S., they are stepping up to take action on climate in the face of federal inaction.

Virginia’s Energy Policies and Challenges

In lieu of federal action on climate change, cities in Virginia and across the U.S. are increasingly developing climate action plans and setting goals for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, which often incorporate actions that encourage cities to move from fossil fuels and to renewable, low-carbon power. As Arlington County Energy Manager John Morrill describes, “Arlington County has a 2013 Community Energy Plan goal of 160 megawatts of on-site solar by 2050. In the current revision to that Plan, we are expanding the goal to be 100% renewable electricity for county government operations by 2024, and 100 percent renewable electricity community-wide by 2035.” But many Virginia communities, like Arlington County, find that state policy limits their options for purchasing renewable energy.

Unlike states with electric retail choice, where consumers can select their electricity provider, Virginia operates under partial retail choice. Virginia state law requires most cities and counties to buy electricity through a regulated monopoly utility, except in instances where the utility does not provide a 100 percent clean energy option, which some utilities in Virginia already provide and others are pursuing. As a result, customers, including cities, may not be able to pursue renewable energy options outside of the utility. Cities are not allowed to get their energy directly from solar developers, which could stimulate competition, provide more financing options and help drive down costs. While the regulated utilities within Virginia do offer programs designed to help customers purchase renewable energy, they tend to be more expensive than energy from traditional sources.  Cities often have financial limitations and need low-cost renewable energy solutions to meet their goals.

In other states, legislators and regulators have responded to increased demand for renewable power by setting renewable portfolio standards and requiring utilities to implement innovative programs to expand renewable energy, like community solar and off-site power purchase agreements. In North Carolina, for example, Duke Energy Carolinas responded to North Carolina’s REPS regulation by offering a suite of programs, including the NC Solar Rebate Program which provides rebates to customers who install photovoltaics. Many of Virginia’s renewable energy utility programs are still in pilot phases, have caps on participation or are not available to cities, limiting the number and type of customers who can take advantage of these options.

Local leaders want Virginia utilities, state regulators and federal government to support their goals to increase renewable energy options. Carol Davis, Sustainability Manager for the Town of Blacksburg, Virginia says, “We are looking for leadership at the state level ‒ both in terms of legislators and a regulatory framework to start taking this climate emergency seriously. What we need is an energy system transformation at an ever-accelerating pace. And we need that to happen at the state level. Our individual efforts will not get us there in time.”

Moving Forward for Change Together

Where regulations inhibit clean energy development, partnerships can help. Cities and counties are learning from other’s renewable procurement journey, identifying ways to together approach their utility to expand renewable energy programs and financing, while developing a shared vision to advocate for future state legislative action.

The Virginia Energy and Sustainability Peer Network (VESPN) is doing this. Comprised of approximately 20 cities, towns and counties, VESPN  recently convened  a renewable energy procurement boot camp, facilitated by WRI and RMI’s Renewables Accelerator team, to help members learn more about available energy options in Virginia.

This type of peer support is essential for local climate plans to succeed, according to Morrill. “Forums like this bootcamp are helpful to identify the mechanisms and pathways available to purchase renewable energy while also developing partnerships and boosting community awareness. Working together, we can collaborate to access the different paths that both residential and commercial customers have to procure renewable electricity.”

A Bold Vision for Virginia’s Energy Future

Local leaders are asking state legislators to open the Virginia’s electricity market to more competition and allow direct partnerships with solar developers. Together, localities are beginning to engage with their public utility commission, the State Corporation Commission, calling for a mandatory state renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which would require Virginia’s utilities to increase the percentage of renewables available to all customers. They are also working with utilities to bring down premiums on renewable energy programs and develop custom solutions like green tariffs.

Many of these cities are also exploring ways to work together on new solutions, including pooling their buying power through the state’s existing municipal aggregation laws, which allow buyers to combine their demand by joining other cities, universities and corporations to demonstrate strong local demand for renewables.

“We are limited with tools available,” says Susan Elliot, Climate Protection Program Manager for Charlottesville. “We have been supporting local community campaigns like solar programs and co-ops, and have financial support mechanisms for businesses to do energy efficiency and/or renewable energy upgrades. The next step is to look at what else we can do to support action in the private sector.”

Working with neighboring communities, businesses and universities, local governments in Virginia are combining their voices and buying power to change the way electricity is bought and sold ‒ and pushing for a cleaner grid in the U.S.

“Just five years ago we thought [the idea] was nuts, yet now we see credible paths to 100% renewable electricity,” says Morrill. “Carbon neutrality is possible through breakthroughs in renewable technology and plummeting prices. It has become the least-cost energy supply in Virginia. We are excited for all the doors and opportunities that are opening.”

The Renewables Accelerator is a key resource for cities already leading on renewable energy and those kickstarting their clean energy programs. Learn more about renewable energy procurement options for cities and the American Cities Climate Challenge Renewables Accelerator at www.cityrenewables.org.

This blog originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Cassandra Etter-Wenzel is a Clean Energy Specialist for the Energy Program at World Resources Institute.

Lacey Shaver is the City Renewable Energy Manager for the Energy Program at World Resources Institute.