Virginia Energy Change by Government

Efforts by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to diversify the state’s energy mix are off to a curious start. He created an “Energy Council” to advise him and set six dates for “listening sessions” throughout the Commonwealth to field recommendations from the public.

Now if you wanted to give the public ample opportunity to chime in, one would think such an announcement would be heavily promoted throughout the state with the dates and locations of the listening sessions well in advance. While this effort fell short on both fronts, the Governor should be commended for engaging the public and appointing subject matter experts to make recommendations.  There is also a web page dedicated to field comments from the public, which you can find here.

For clean energy advocates and members of the public who aspire to see markets for solar energy, energy efficiency and cleaner transportation enabled in Virginia, it remains to be see how thorough this effort by the McAuliffe Administration will be. After all, Virginia preserves geographic monopolies for electric power providers which are heavily dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear energy to generate electricity.

The Virginia Energy Council began its work with its first listening session at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg June 12. Judging by the attendance, formal presentations on solar energy and energy efficiency and remarks by 11 individuals, there is significant pent-up demand at least for home solar energy systems and tools to help homeowners and business better manage their energy usage.

Note: the next two “Listening Sessions” are Tuesday, June 17 at the Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale and Thursday, June 19 at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston. Both begin at 6 p.m.

Below are the eight of the 24-member Energy Council who attended the first session in Fredericksburg listed in alphabetical order:

  1. Alleyn Harned, Virginia Clean Cities
  2. Chelsea Harnish, Virginia Conservation Network
  3. Francis Hodsoll, Virginia Advanced Energy Industries Coalition
  4. Steven Jumper, WGL Holdings, Inc.
  5. Bob Matthias, Virginia Offshore Wind Authority
  6. Archie Pugh, American Electric Power East
  7. Stephen Walz, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
  8. Mike Ward, Virginia Petroleum Council

The entire list of Energy Council members can be found here.

Under state rules, Energy Council members were instructed just to listen so there was no engaging neither the presenters nor the speakers. In the interest of time and letting all those who signed in to be able to speak in one evening, perhaps that makes sense. Unless this is mostly for show ‘n tell. Let’s hope not.

Here are selected highlights, each of which raises important questions about Virginia’s energy mix and its ability to capitalize on growing markets for cleaner energy and energy efficiency and the jobs and energy savings that come with them.

For all of the growing interest in rooftop home solar electric systems throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and many other parts of the country, Virginia is falling farther behind in enabling the marketplace to serve residences and business trying to save money, reduce their exposure to rising electricity prices and improve their personal and company sustainability.

Jon Hillis, Vice President at Prospect Solar in Sterling, Virginia (first photo) grabbed everyone’s attention by asserting the five largest solar systems in the Commonwealth were designed and installed by out-of-state companies. Not only that, the two largest (albeit still small) solar installation companies in Virginia have no solar systems to their credit in the state. They’re performing all of their work, with the jobs and services that come with it, out of state. One has to ask: How does it make sense to be passing up this opportunity?

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Prospect Solar Vice President Jon Hillis addresses the newly-formed Virginia Energy Council and interested parties at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, VA June 12. Photo by Jim Pierobon.

It’s not lost on solar advocates that all U.S. taxpayers are effectively subsidizing homeowners and organizations that buy solar systems with a 30% tax credit. But if that home or business is located in Virginia, even this credit is not enough to generate enough interest in solar energy because the return on investment is longer than the psychological and financial threshold of a return on investment within 10 years.

So any friends who are buying rooftop solar systems with the federal credit, along with often very attractive state and local incentives where they live that can collectively reduce the payback period to less than 5 years, they should thank YOU for helping them save money. Or you could urge Gov. McAuliffe to find the money necessary to fund grants for solar and other renewable energy systems in the Virginia’s next budget. This after the General Assembly earlier this year approved such a grant subject to finding the money to run it.

Better yet, Hillis urged the Council members present to consider and the public to support a mandatory amount of electricity that utilities sell to come from solar and other renewable energy sources. And while you’re at it, strengthen the state’s policy for earning credits on solar systems that generate more electricity than a home or business needs in a month or cumulative over a 12-month cycle (aka “net metering”).

Virginians also are missing out on what many energy professionals and policy analysts contend is the most compelling opportunity: the chance to better manage one’s usage of not just electricity but natural gas as well.

Ken Rosenfeld, Executive Director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council — the other formal presenter in Fredericksburg — cited several facts that underscore the money-saving opportunities for homeowners, the work needed to achieve the state’s goal of reducing power consumption 10% by 2022 and how much new generating capacity may fall short of demand if efficiency and solar energy are not given the chance to grow.

Rosenfeld asserted from research and surveys that there are about 1.5 million homes in Virginia that are “retrofit-ready.” While there approximately 1,300 energy efficiency and contracting companies working in Virginia employing about 9,400 workers generating about $300 million in annual revenue, think how much bigger and stronger that industry could be if property owners were incentivized to reduce their energy usage.

Of the individuals speaking to the Council on their own accord, Seth Heald from rural western Culpepper County shared the amount he owned on his electric bill last month – zero – largely due to the solar system he decided to invest in spite of the long-term payback in Virginia.

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Robert Champ III of energy auditor Energy Edge in McLean, VA appeals to the Virginia Energy Council to recommend incentives for Virginians to save money by reducing their use of electricity and natural gas. Photo by Jim Pierobon.

Heald, who is Vice Chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, acknowledged that new carbon restrictions set for Virginia under amendments to Section 111(d) of the federal Clean Air Act might drive up electricity rates to help pay for cleaner generating options. But along with the fundamental shift every state faces with its power options, monthly bills in Virginia could actually decline IF efficiency and conservation products and services were made available through utilities in Virginia and by other means.

Matthew Faulconer, Manager of External Affairs but also ratepayer at and an owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Fredericksburg, signaled a sincere desire to “work together” to bring cleaner energy and efficiency solutions to residents in the Coop’s service territory. But he was quick to remind the Council members that the region’s electric power infrastructure, including 16,000 miles of power lines across 20 counties in central Virginia need to be maintained and every ratepayer who wants continued use of its electric power system has to pay to help maintain it.

Robert Champ III (accompanying photo) is a home energy efficiency contractor at Edge Energy in McLean, Virginia. But virtually all of the company’s work is outside the state because homeowners elsewhere are incentivized to reduce their energy usage.

Virginia homeowners have to pay for an audit out of their own pocket, Champ said. He asserted the state should do more to help Virginians, as many states do, to become more energy efficient. “We’d like to get the business throughout Virginia.”

Other speakers took aim at coal and the state’s declining but still heavy reliance on it to generate electricity. The hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) of natural gas and Virginia’s growing usage of it to make power drew calls to proceed very carefully less well-water supplies be compromised forever. Still others urged use of Virginia’s Atlantic coastline to deploy offshore wind energy systems.

The last of the 11 speakers was Richard Cizik an evangelical pastor who discovered his then-young son’s difficulty breathing due to asthma which was made worse he asserted by emissions from coal-fired power plants in the region. He urged the Council members to think “what it feels like when your child says he can’t breathe. That will wake up your heart.”