Karen Schaufeld had one field at New River Farm near Leesburg that wasn’t much good for growing anything. So rather than spend money on crops that may or may not turn a profit, she decided to turn it toward a more reliable crop: solar energy. She put up enough solar panels to offset the power needs of one of the buildings on the property.
“I quickly discovered that unless I wanted to physically interconnect it across my creek to my building, I was not allowed to sell it to the utility,” Schaufeld told a room of people during a solar energy panel discussion at her farm Tuesday evening. “I had to actually file as an independent power producer for my tiny, tiny array, and quickly discovered that the cost associated with that made sure that it was completely uneconomical.”
She had run into one of many stumbling blocks to putting up solar arrays in Virginia. Since that time, the landscape for solar power in Virginia has shifted, but slowly. Electric customers can now generate some of their own power, with new power meters that permit net metering—in other words, measuring the power the customer generates against the power the customer uses, and only charging or issuing credits for the balance.
As of 2015, the law permits residential power customers to generate up to 20 kilowatts, and nonresidential customers to generate up to 1 megawatt, and not more than the property’s actual usage over the course of a year. So Schaufeld expanded her solar arrays to cover the power needs of all nine buildings on her farm.
“Now our challenge is, I wanted to use this as a revenue generator, because I happen to be farming, and I want something that’s a steady, reliable income over the years,” Schaufeld said.
And she, her allies in the movement, and her organization Powered by Facts, are making progress. A bill being drafted for next month’s General Assembly session would allow farmers to generate up to 1.5 megawatts and 150 percent of the farm’s total usage. It would also establish solar farms as an agricultural use to clear up local zoning confusion.
Tidewater Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-7), who chairs the Commerce and Labor Committee that oversees energy policy in the General Assembly, said allowing customers to sell excess capacity back to the power company is a change in philosophy for Virginia.
“That is a fundamental change in philosophy in Virginia, and one that will take some tap dancing,” Wagner said. “But we’re pretty good dancers.”
He’s confident the Virginia Senate will adopt the measure.
“We have that white smoke, absolutely,” Wagner said. “I’ve been around a while. I can virtually guarantee you a 38-2 and perhaps a 40-to-nothing vote in the senate.” The House of Delegates, meanwhile, he says is more unpredictable.
The measure does have its opponents and its hurdles, both legal and practical. Power companies have been hesitant to embrace home generation of solar power. And some localities have hesitated to approve solar projects, either because they don’t fit well into zoning code or because they are not taxed by the locality, Wagner said. In addition, incentives like tax credits are a hard sell in Virginia, which must have a balanced budget and is unlikely to give up revenues to create a tax credit while facing a tough budget year.
Drew Skinner, project manager for Prospect Solar, which installs solar arrays, said solar can now compete with other power generation on cost, but still faces an uphill battle.
“You have the David and Goliath classic situation,” Skinner said. “You have a goliath utility that is a state-controlled monopoly that’s looking out for the best interest of the people, they really and truly believe they are. They’re trying to protect the energy infrastructure that they’ve built, owned and maintained for their entire life, and they don’t know any other way to do it.”
Schaufeld pointed out that power companies also have investors to think of. “There’s not a pure motive there, necessarily,” she said.
“A good friend of mine has a large office industrial complex, and took a lot of measures to reduce his energy usage,” Schaufeld said. “And ended up paying more electricity dollars, because his rate got more expensive the less he used, which is a really perverse incentive.”
Wagner also pointed out that solar can in some cases drive the cost of energy up, because there is less demand for the energy a power company creates but the same cost to establish its infrastructure, which means rates get higher to offset the utility’s costs. And Skinner said that North Carolina dove into solar production so eagerly that the industry is now saturated and having to scale back.
“If there’s one thing I appreciate about Virginia, it’s been steady,” Skinner said.
But despite the hurdles, some Loudoun business owners who have invested in solar generation say they love it. Scott Harris, co-owner of Catoctin Creek distillery in Purcellville, distills all-organic, zero-waste, and now nearly energy-neutral liquors since he installed solar panels at the business.
“In months like October and in May, when we’re not using the air conditioning, we get zero dollar bills and credits to the next month, so it’s quite nice,” Harris said. He said that frees up a lot of cash flow to purchase more ingredients for whisky.
Mark Fedor, owner of North Gate Vineyards, Loudoun’s only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold-certified winery, said he installed solar panels for roofing at his business in 2011.
“For the first couple of years, we were actually pretty close to net zero usage,” Fedor said, although he still pays about $200 a month in service fees to NOVEC. “As we have grown, added some machinery, we have now become in the red, so we’re considering adding some more solar panels somewhere.”