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West Virginia Looks at Community Solar as Legislative Priority

Community solar allows customers to receive solar energy without having to install their own systems, allowing them to benefit from energy generated offsite, and could save residential customers about 10 percent in electricity costs.

(TNS) —West Virginia's leaders, from Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito to Gov. Jim Justice and members of the state Public Energy Authority, have a pet phrase for their preferred approach to energy policy:

All of the above.

"We need ... an all-of-the-above approach to delivering energy for Americans and our allies around the world," Rep. Carol Miller, R- W.Va., said in an email last month.

An energy delivery option unavailable to West Virginians would slash energy costs and generate thousands of jobs, clean energy advocates say.

That option is community solar, a setup in which customers receive solar energy without having to install their own solar energy system, typically benefiting from energy generated at an offsite array.

"You can think of it as shared local power," said Leah Barbor, West Virginia program director of Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit that works to expand solar access.

Experts say community solar saves residential consumers about 10 percent in electricity costs. Proponents say it would open up affordable renewable electricity to low- and moderate-income customers and extend the benefits of solar to people who are unable or unwilling to have solar arrays installed where they live.

"Without community solar, homeowners with good roofs and good credit can directly benefit now [from solar], but essentially nobody else can," Barbor said.

Community solar would allow renters, owners of shaded properties and low-to-moderate-income customers far greater access to solar energy.

"Not everyone can go solar on their own homes," said Dan Conant, founder and CEO of Shepherdstown-based solar installer Solar Holler. "A lot of our neighbors rent, folks live in the middle of the woods, or maybe you're planning on moving in a couple of years."

State ratepayers faced a 90 percent climb in average residential electricity retail price from 2005 to 2020, according to Energy Information Administration data. Only Michigan had a greater increase by percentage.

Pending before the state Public Utility Commission is a $297 million fuel cost rate hike request from Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power that would add $18.41 to the monthly bill for a residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt-hours.

Nine gas utilities serving the state have proposed monthly residential winter bill increases of more than 25 percent for customers using 13,000 cubic feet of gas.

"[E]lectricity prices in West Virginia have been increasing rapidly in recent years, and community solar would provide customers with some ability to hedge against further rate increases," said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law.

"[F]olks can't continue paying the outrageous prices that out-of-state utilities have pushed on us," Conant said.

West Virginia is among the majority of states that haven't adopted legislation to enable community solar.

To support the Department of Energy's definition of community solar, state lawmakers would have to approve a third-party market that requires project developers and utilities to meet regulations to enroll customers and add community solar installations.

As of December, 22 states had policies supporting community solar deployment, according to the Department of Energy.

Community solar is growing quickly where it's been encouraged to grow.

More community solar capacity was installed from 2020 through 2021 than in the previous 14 years combined, according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory data.

While community solar expanded exponentially outside West Virginia's borders, state lawmakers focused on allowing other solar deployment.

In 2020, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 583, a measure that opened up the state to utility-scale solar development.

Last year, the Legislature invited rooftop solar development. House Bill 3310 exempted solar power purchase agreements from the state Public Service Commission's jurisdiction. Under a power purchase agreement, a developer arranges design, permitting, financing and installation of a solar energy system on a customer's property at little or no cost.

But solar's footprint in West Virginia remains smaller than in most of the rest of the country.

West Virginia ranks 48th nationally in installed solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The state ranked 45th in 2021. West Virginia ranked 47th in solar jobs in 2021. Only eight states are projected to add less solar over the next five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

A new report from West Virginia clean energy advocates projects more encouraging numbers for solar if the Legislature enables building 200 megawatts of community solar statewide.

That amount of community solar would save West Virginia electric customers $2.6 million to $5.3 million a year and generate 2,500 full- and part-time jobs stemming from solar installations, according to the study.

The report from Morgantown-based environmental and economic development consulting firm Downstream Strategies, West Virginians for Energy Freedom and Solar United Neighbors projects that installation of 200 megawatts of community solar in West Virginia would lead to $386.3 million in new sales.

West Virginians for Energy Freedom is a coalition of individuals, nonprofit groups and businesses that champions locally owned renewable energy and efficiency technologies.

The report touted a community solar bill that languished in the last regular legislative session.

That measure, House Bill 4561, proposed establishing a solar facility subscription service in which subscribers can purchase an interest in a solar facility and use credits against their electric utility costs.

Sponsored by Delegate Evan Hansen, D- Monongalia, founder and principal of Downstream Strategies, and Delegate Kayla Young, D- Kanawha, HB 4561 would have limited community solar facilities to 5 megawatts each, with a 100-megawatt aggregate limit for each public utility providing bill credits to a facility's subscribers.

The bill would have required the Public Service Commission to file rules by Jan. 1 that ensured accessibility for low-income customers and service organizations while also allowing utilities to recover "reasonable costs" of program administration.

"The legislation requires particular attention to be paid to low-income customers, which is really helpful on addressing energy equity issues," Van Nostrand said. "It should not be only the rich who can take advantage of solar power."

Community solar adoption topped a list of 2023 legislative priorities on energy issues recently published by the West Virginia Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group.

A national coalition of community solar stakeholders, a regional solar financial and technical assistance program and other community solar organizers stand ready to help foster community solar growth in West Virginia.

It'll take state support to ensure a brighter future for community solar in West Virginia.

Appalachian Power has signaled it would oppose HB 4561 if it's reintroduced in the upcoming legislative session. The state Legislature has been slow to embrace renewable energy, clinging to coal instead amid solar's rise by repealing the state's renewable energy portfolio standard, slashing the coal severance tax and requiring electric utilities to keep a minimum amount of coal supply under contract.

Solar supporters want "all of the above" in West Virginia's energy portfolio to include community solar as soon as possible.

"Community solar would give all West Virginians the chance to slash their utility bills while making sure their dollars are staying in West Virginia," Conant said.

How Community Solar Could Work

Implementing community solar would require metering the output of an installation and spreading the resulting revenue across subscribers' bills.

The Downstream Strategies-led report touts the importance of anchor tenants in the education, healthcare and retail sectors that have roofs, parking garages and other areas on which to site community solar projects. Anchor tenants would use a large share of energy from solar panels installed, fostering solar development in rural and remote communities that might otherwise struggle to attract solar investment while cutting electricity costs.

Downstream Strategies senior planner Matt Pennington, lead author of the report, noted during a recent press call with Barbor that a healthcare facility that claimed 40 percent of a community solar subscription could offer the remaining 60 percent to facility employees.

Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye said the company doesn't see the need for legislation that would move toward community solar generation when renewable options for customers are already available.

"[A]ny customer that wants to install solar on their home can do so now without legislation," Moye said in an email.

Community solar would mean more solar options for West Virginians other than the solar generation offered by the company's first 50-megawatt solar project enabled by SB 583.

Earlier this year, the Public Service Commission approved Appalachian Power's request to purchase and recover the costs of buying a 50-megawatt solar facility to be constructed in Berkeley County.

Moye didn't respond when asked what adverse impacts Appalachian Power foresees if HB 4561 becomes law as proposed earlier this year.

FirstEnergy spokesman Will Boye declined to comment on HB 4561, saying the company was reviewing the bill.

More solar options are better, said Solar Holler marketing and innovation director Jessica Edgerly Walsh.

"I think it's a fair assumption that for every West Virginian who can build solar at their home, there's at least one other who can't and would need a community solar option," Edgerly Walsh said.

Edgerly Walsh said community solar would be more than just a marginal offering in West Virginia's solar landscape.

"A reasonable starting assumption would be that we could double the size of the solar industry in our state with community solar," Edgerly Walsh said.

The Downstream Strategies-led report argues that won't happen if West Virginia adopts a community solar setup that restricts the entities that can offer community solar to utility assets.

The report points to North Carolina's 2017 utility-based community solar program. Approximately one megawatt of community solar was added in North Carolina from 2018 through 2021, according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory data.

State Support Needed

There are regional and national sources of support for community solar in West Virginia.

Autumn Long said the Appalachian Solar Finance Fund, which she oversees, would be excited to support community solar development in Central Appalachia. The fund is powered by a $1.5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant and support from foundations such as the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the New York Community Trust.

Launched in November 2021, the fund is designed to offset costs for pre-development and early-stage solar projects and is available for public and private entities in all 55 West Virginia counties and counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina designated as Appalachian by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The fund will provide subgrant awards and technical assistance contracts for public, nonprofit and for-profit entities.

The Appalachian Solar Finance Fund already has received 33 eligible applications and pledged more than $355,000 toward competitive subgrant awards and technical assistance contracts to support 21 solar projects in five Central Appalachian states, Long said.

"Our region is missing out on the job-creating economic development potential of this important and growing sector of the solar industry," Long said.

The National Community Solar Partnership is a Department of Energy initiative and coalition of community solar stakeholders working to expand access to affordable community solar.

The partnership's goal is to enable community solar systems to power the equivalent of 5 million households by 2025 and create $1 billion in subscriber energy savings, representing a 700 percent increase in community solar deployment.

Partners can access Department of Energy technical assistance resources, an online community platform, meetings and webinars and initiatives that address barriers to solar implementation.

Provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August could boost community solar, advocates say. Those include a 20 percent bonus tax credit for solar projects on federally subsidized affordable housing projects, a 10 percent bonus credit for solar projects in low-income communities and a $27 billion fund that will provide competitive grants to states, local governments, tribes and eligible nonprofit financing institutions for clean energy and climate projects.

"Things are moving really fast," Nicole Steele, a senior advisor with the Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technologies Office, said during a recent community solar webinar hosted by the World Resources Institute, a global research institution. "And we all know that we needed to do this 20 years ago, so we're moving as fast as we can."

A Department of Energy report on barriers to community solar deployment suggests it'll be up to West Virginia leaders to make community solar a successful option.

The report identified state policy and regulatory environments as a major barrier, including lack of enabling legislation and a need for policies with strong consumer protection.

The report recommended providing peer networking, data, case studies, tools and pilot projects to help states develop programs that yield meaningful community solar benefits.

Sandhya Murali, co-founder and chief operating officer of Solstice, a Massachusetts-based solar services company, said state and municipal support matters.

"[It] add[s] a layer of credibility to when we go into communities and start to build up partnerships and start marketing this to individuals," Murali said. "People know, oh yeah, I've heard of community solar. I know this is a real thing."

But community solar advocates say the concept won't be fully realized in West Virginia until state ratepayers of all income levels and locations can harness the power of the sun.

"[W]hen done right, these programs can provide solar access to everyone," Barbor said.

(c)2022 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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