Are you unable to install solar panels yourself? In some areas you can participate in a community project. •Virginia Mercury

Are you unable to install solar panels yourself?  In some areas you can participate in a community project.  •Virginia Mercury

For four generations, Steve Wine’s family has maintained a 600-acre ranch in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where they raise steers and grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa. The farm has struggled in recent years with rising costs and collapsing crop markets, leaving Wine to question the viability of the operation.

In an effort to maintain the farm, Wine will begin harvesting a new crop in the coming months: solar energy. He has leased 34 acres to a solar developer, who has installed panels that will generate about 5 megawatts of power at peak capacity. The project is financed by subscriptions from approximately 1,000 households in the region, which receive credits on their electricity bills based on the power generated.

“This is a steady income that we know will be there,” Wine said. “I love farming, and this was an option we had to ease the burden.”

The energy model, known as community solar, is growing across the country. It allows people who rent houses or who cannot install roof panels on their own properties to subscribe to medium-sized solar projects on nearby farms, schools or large stores.

While subscription methods may vary, industry groups say a typical monthly subscription of $120 to $135 can ultimately save participants $15 to $30 per month. For many, the savings can amount to 5% to 20% of their electricity bill.

For property owners hosting the solar panels, leases could be worth about $30,000 a year, according to one developer.

Bills could expand shared solar programs in Dominion, Appalachian Power areas

Advocates say community solar can play an important role in expanding clean energy and providing low-income households with relief from their energy costs. While definitions may vary, industry trade group Coalition for Community Solar Access says 20 states have policies that enable “true” community solar, requiring utilities to credit the electric bills of households subscribing to solar projects that are not built or managed by the utilities themselves.

This year, lawmakers in at least ten states have introduced bills that would enable or expand community solar programs, driven in part by federal funding opportunities from the Inflation Reduction Act. Citing consumer choice and affordability, a growing number of Republican lawmakers have sponsored such proposals, including in seven of those states.

But some bills have been stalled by strong opposition from utilities, who have argued that community solar programs don’t take into account costs such as overhead and distribution costs, which are passed on to unsubscribed ratepayers.

“All other energy customers cannot subsidize the benefits of those who subscribe to community solar projects,” said Zach Hill, chief public and community affairs manager at Alliant Energy, a Midwestern utility that has opposed the legislation in Wisconsin. “There is no consumer protection (in the bill).”

‘It functions’

Earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers passed bills to expand the state’s community solar program by 200 megawatts, enough to power more than 30,000 homes, and bring projects to new parts of the state.

The state’s original program, set in 2022, had a cap of 150 megawatts and was approaching that capacity. More than 12,000 households will subscribe to the program this year and receive bill credits totaling $19 million — an average of about $130 per household per month, according to a November projection from the consulting group Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors.

These projects help farmland owners preserve their farms, reduce costs for taxpayers, and enable everyone in the state to participate in our clean energy transition.

– Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax

Like many community solar programs, the Virginia measure waives subscription fees for low-income customers while reserving a set number of memberships for such households. Low-income households have covered the entire program so far.

“The fact that we hit the limit shows that there is demand for it and that it works,” says Del. Rip Sullivan, a Democrat who sponsored the expansion measures this session. “These projects will help farmland owners preserve their farms, reduce costs to taxpayers and enable everyone in the state to participate in our clean energy transition.”

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Sullivan’s bills into law last month.

As Virginia’s program expands, other states are looking to create their own. The Pennsylvania House introduced a bill earlier this year that would create a community solar program in the state. The measure, sponsored by a mix of Democrats and Republicans, was recently referred to a Senate committee.

Some Pennsylvania utilities have worked with lawmakers to shape the proposal. Brian Ahrens, senior communications specialist at PECO, the state’s largest electric and natural gas utility, said the company generally supports the measure but is concerned about an amendment that would prevent utilities from recovering costs such as distribution costs associated with solar energy for the community. PECO aims to remain involved in the discussions as the bill heads to the Senate, he said.

“This is something we would like to see, and it is a benefit to our customers,” Ahrens said. “We want to ensure that (projects) pay their fair share of the costs required to use our distribution system.”

Many of this session’s state proposals have been sponsored by Republican lawmakers, including those in Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

“The trend in recent years has been more and more red states adopting these bills,” said Brandon Smithwood, vice president of policy at Dimension Renewable Energy, an Atlanta-based developer that has built community solar projects in 11 states. “There is demand for these smaller, locally controlled projects that can deliver savings for customers.”

Utility fights

In Michigan, Republican Senator Ed McBroom was among the leaders supporting community solar legislation.

“I do my best to provide value to consumers who are paying far too high rates,” he said. “This allows people to tap into the solar energy market on a small scale.”

McBroom said the proposal has faced opposition from utilities whose leaders say the cost of integrating community solar will drive up rates. He questioned the sincerity of their concerns about the impact on consumers. Democratic leaders in the Senate have committed to holding hearings on the issue, he said.

Consumers Energy, a Michigan-based utility, did not grant an interview request.

Community solar advocates say utility issues are a common roadblock to such proposals.

“(Utilities) prefer to have their monopoly on the electric grid, and they have their claws in the entire political ecosystem,” said Matt Hargarten, director of public affairs at the Coalition for Community Solar.

Wisconsin utilities successfully oppose a community solar proposal put forth by Senate Republicans. In an interview, Alliant Energy officials said the Wisconsin measure did not provide protections that would ensure projects gain enough subscribers before they are built. Utility leaders feared the proposal would force them to buy electricity from projects that don’t have enough subscribers to be viable.

Alliant also pointed to its own subscription-based solar programs, which are offered to customers in Wisconsin and Iowa.

But advocates say such utility-managed programs aren’t really community solar because they don’t achieve the scale and cost savings offered by third-party developers.

“What’s important is creating a competitive market that accommodates non-utility developers,” said Maria McCoy, a researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that aims to strengthen local communities. “Subscribers should save money and not pay premiums.”

In Washington, Democratic state Rep. David Hackney introduced a community solar bill this year, which quickly met opposition. He acknowledged that utilities in the state have raised legitimate consumer protection concerns that need to be resolved before the issue can move forward next session.

“The idea of ​​community solar is still alive,” he said. “The hard work of legislation is reaching an agreement that is acceptable to both sides.”

One of the utilities’ concerns was the possibility that incompetent or fraudulent developers would exploit their subscribers, leaving the utilities facing the wrath of customers.

“They would come to us because we are the ones putting these charges and credits on their bills,” said Heather Mulligan, manager of customer renewable energy programs at the utility Puget Sound Energy. “We are very open to continuing the conversation and finding ways to support community solar development in a way that ensures there is oversight from all participating parties.”

This story originally appeared in Stateline, a sister publication of the Virginia Mercury.