by Aaron Sutch
In another life, I was a middle school teacher. I taught for four years at a public school. It’s a hard age group. But I found the antics of my 7th and 8th grade students more amusing than frustrating. Perhaps I was well-prepared, having worked at a zoo before entering the classroom.
As a teacher, I enjoyed working with students, but was constantly frustrated as we faced shrinking budgets. Administrators were forced to decide between paying for rising energy costs or investing in resources for my students.
It broke my heart to see tight funds diverted from students to cover rising electricity bills. It happened all the time.
So it’s exciting that Virginia schools are installing solar power to generate electricity and save on energy costs. The Commonwealth now ranks among the top 10 states for solar on K-12 schools with more than 34,000 KW of installed solar capacity. This is enough to power 3,700 Virginia homes.
These installations will free up millions of dollars to hire teachers and create learning opportunities for students. They will create jobs for local community members.
But communities in Southwest Virginia are being left behind. In fact, the region has only installed 22 KW of solar on its schools. More solar capacity could fit on the roof of a single house.
This disparity has one cause: utility Appalachian Power Company (APCo). The West Virginia-based utility is blocking solar installations on schools and local governments in Southwest Virginia.
APCo is blocking approximately 6 MW of solar projects, according to some industry estimates.
These are projects like the one on Ridgeview High School in Dickenson County. It would save taxpayers more than a million dollars over its lifespan. It has been on hold since 2018.
APCo could let projects like the one at Ridgeview proceed. But it refuses. Instead, the company clings to the unnecessary provisions in an expired energy contract as justification.
Schools and municipal governments negotiate a special contract with APCo as their electric utility. This is known as the Public Authority Contract. The last one was negotiated in 2016. It forbids schools and governments from entering into solar Power Purchase Agreements (PPA’s), which help schools, governments and other non-profits go solar at little or no up-front cost. The contract also imposes an artificially-low 3 MW total cap on net metering. Net metering ensures solar producers get full credit for the energy they produce.
Without these key enabling mechanisms, solar installations on schools and government buildings have ground to a halt. A new contract, which appears to lift these limits, is close to being finalized. But it has been “close to being finalized” for months with no clear end in sight. Meanwhile APCo continues to drag its feet, not letting a single project proceed even though the old contract expired in June of 2020
It’s so bad that legislation is moving forward to address the utility’s obstinacy. The legislation clarifies the legality of PPA’s for schools and governments. APCo doesn’t oppose the legislation but still won’t budge.
Why Does APCo Block Solar on Schools and Local Governments?
The simple answer is that what’s good for customers and for local communities conflicts with APCo’s old-fashioned business model.
This is a business model that depends on selling large quantities of energy and power. Utility shareholders receive generous rates of return for capital investments. Utility customers foot the bill.
Solar on schools and government buildings reduces demand for increasingly expensive grid electricity. In greater numbers, it can help avoid costly grid investments paid for by all utility customers.
In spite of these benefits, APCo sees solar panels on a school only as reduced demand for utility-supplied energy and power. Most of this the company generates out of state with fossil fuels. Solar the utility doesn’t own threatens a business model that has changed very little in decades.
But here is the reality:
Our grid will be increasingly powered by clean, local energy. Consumers – whether they are individuals, businesses, schools or municipal governments – now have the technology and desire to save on rising energy costs with on-site solar.
There is no going back.
Other utilities have realized this. Ever so slowly, they have begun adapting and re-thinking their role as a facilitator of the clean, local energy options their customers want. Dominion Energy has expanded PPAs and net metering caps for schools and governments. It has also begun focusing on vehicle electrification, and piloting rates to reflect the value that on-site solar and energy storage can provide to the grid. This can offer wins for customers and help position utilities to thrive and remain relevant in the transition to a modern grid powered by renewable energy.
But APCo has been very slow to embrace this reality. Instead the company has unwisely gambled that it can block access to rooftop solar — a beneficial, cost-effective technology that its customers want.
This is no accident or misunderstanding. It’s a purposeful strategy to prevent schools and local governments from generating their own electricity with solar.
And they do it in other states as well. In West Virginia, APCo helped kill legislation last year, and currently opposes expanding solar PPA’s for schools and governments in the state.
But this strategy will ultimately fail. It will render the company less relevant. Consumers now demand the same market options and access to technology that they enjoy in other aspects of their lives.
On-site solar is now cost-competitive and often cheaper than grid-supplied electricity. Schools and local governments want it.
Communities want the well-paying jobs associated with one of the fastest-growing industries in the country.
My non-profit organization Solar United Neighbors has facilitated nearly 1,000 solar installations in the Commonwealth. This dates back to helping community members launch Virginia’s first Solarize program in Blacksburg in 2014.
In talking with solar homeowners and businesses across Virginia, the number one question we still receive is “how can I get solar on my child’s school?… How can we put solar on City Hall?”
It’s clear that a majority of people share the desire to build clean, local energy into our communities. This transcends demographics and political leanings. Creating jobs and saving taxpayers money simply makes sense.
It’s also clear that APCo’s shenanigans to block solar for schools and governments rival a classroom of highly caffeinated 13 year-olds.
And this has to stop right now.
The company can choose to serve the customers and communities in which it operates. Or it can gamble that its political power and financial resources can squelch consumer preferences and postpone the inevitable shift in our energy system.
But it can’t do both. As I used to tell my students, decisions have consequences.
Let’s hope that APCo begins to listen to its customers and start positioning itself to thrive in the clean energy revolution. Because the revolution is happening whether the company thinks it can be stopped or not.
Aaron Sutch is the Mid Atlantic Region Director for Solar United Neighbors. This column was published originally at Power for the People VA.