On a recent December day, Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe Solar worked to install solar panels on the roofs of Powhatan Elementary and Middle schools. Once operational, the panels will generate energy for the Powhatan County schools.

Large-scale solar projects like this have been made possible through a pilot program Virginia launched in 2013 that allowed for power purchase agreements in the service areas of Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co. 

PPAs allow customers, like the schools in Powhatan, to have on-site solar installed by a third-party developer — in this case Sun Tribe Solar. There is no upfront cost to the school, which agrees to purchase the energy that is produced from the panels on its site.

The savings could allow the school to save some taxpayer dollars while reducing its carbon footprint. 

However, as this year is coming to an end, the 50-megawatt cap in Dominion territory and 7-megawatt cap in APCO territory are nearing their limits, which would hinder the efforts of companies like Sun Tribe to enhance renewable energy throughout the state. 

“Thanks to the PPAs, schools and local governments throughout Virginia are saving millions of dollars while opening new learning opportunities for students through solar,” said Rob Corradi, senior advisor of public affairs at Sun Tribe Solar.  “Legislation that expands the PPA cap is an opportunity for the General Assembly to take a bipartisan action that would be a win-win for taxpayers and the environment. The good news is that we’re definitely seeing positive momentum towards that outcome.”

A new bill, the Virginia Clean Economy Act, aims to not only bolster renewable energy, but it has other goals outlined that can fit into Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2050 emissions goals — as well as the ones that Charlottesville and Albemarle County set this year. 

According to the legislation, it would enact a statewide Renewable Portfolio Standard that would bring Virginia up to 30% clean energy by 2030, before gradually phasing in clean energy sources while phasing out coal and gas for the grid to become carbon-free by 2050. It will also support energy efficiency measures and target rooftop projects, like the ones Sun Tribe deals in, by “empowering homeowners, municipalities and industry to contribute to Virginia’s energy market through rooftop solar.”

To accomplish this, it aims to remove hurdles currently preventing some consumers from installing rooftop solar panels, such as the cap companies like Sun Tribe are reaching.

“I think we see a bright economic opportunity for the energy market up and down the spectrum,” said Harry Godfrey, the executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy. “It lays out clear benchmarks and targets for investing in more wind and more solar.”

On the economic impact, he said the bill will be a business opportunity for renewable energy companies. 

“It creates market certainty for them, and there’s going to be marketplace to go about consuming renewable energy in the years and decades to come,” Godfrey said. 

One of the co-patrons of the bill notes the intersectional impact it can have. 

“The Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020 will catapult Virginia’s clean energy economy, keep power costs low and protect Virginia communities from the damaging impacts of climate change,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who co-sponsored the bill said in a Dec 19 release.  “We don’t have any longer to wait: We must act now to grow clean energy jobs and protect the future for our children.”

McClellan is joined in co-sponsoring the bill by Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax; Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Petersburg; and Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Alexandra. It is also supported by Virginia Advanced Energy Economy; Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy, Sun Tribe Solar and Clean Virginia; and many other environmental advocacy groups and organizations throughout the state. 

As solar energy — especially in the residential sector — has seen barriers in terms of the up-front costs, not everyone can immediately afford to make the switch. As such, the legislation would allow for community solar projects so that renters, small businesses and people who otherwise would not be able to afford panels on their home could take advantage of the benefits of solar power — like reduced energy bills, for example. Community solar projects are where a solar installation’s electricity is shared by more than one property. 

“We’ve crafted it in a way to balance desire to deploy more resources,” Godfrey said. 

Lastly, the bill would aim to eliminate utility emissions throughout the state by committing the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI, usually referred to as “Reggie,”  would use market forces to incentivize utilities to reduce carbon emissions and utilizes revenues to invest in energy efficiency.

Godfrey said auctions for emissions crediting through RGGI would generate a revenue stream that will flow into a fund to be managed by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Under the legislation, some funding would go towards a low- and moderate-energy efficiency program. 

As for another local champion of renewable energy in the state, Del.-elect Sally Hudson, D- Charlottesville, said she’ll be supporting efforts when she assumes her seat in the House of Delegates come January.