State Opens Up Solar Rules for Farmers

Governor Terry McAuliffe has signed a law opening up solar farms to people who have had some trouble making money from them—actual farmers.

House Bill 2303 increases the cap on how much energy small agricultural generators can produce, up to 1.5 megawatts or 150 percent of their annual usage. Previously, farmers with renewable energy generation were capped at only breaking even on how much energy they produced, meaning they couldn’t make a profit from it.

One of the bill’s champions was Loudoun County philanthropist Karen Schaufeld and her organization Powered by Facts. She said months of work went into the bill before the 2017 General Assembly session.

“It was something like 51 meetings over nine months, since the end of the last session,” Schaufeld said.

Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-10), who introduced the bill in the House of Delegates, said those negotiations were carefully mediated—and no legislators were invited until it was time to draft the bill.

The trick: finding something that worked for everyone at the table—utilities, their ratepayers, alternative energy proponents, and the solar industry.

“What had happened in the past, and the reason why there was such a logjam, was there were groups that, with all good intention wanted to get more solar and more alternative energy into the grid, but they were going after perfect,” Schaufeld said. “And the reality is that we have to look at something that was at least a foot in the door.”

One of the compromises was figuring out how much to pay solar producers for the energy they sell back to the utilities and cooperatives. They’ll get what it would have cost the utility to produce the power and build the power plants needed for that extra capacity. In exchange, the utility gets a set cost for renewable energy while fossil fuel costs are expected to rise in the long term.

And the work isn’t done.

Karen Schaufeld on her farm near Leesburg. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

“The anticipation was never that this was a one-step process,” Schaufeld said. “Nobody is saying this is perfect and satisfies everybody, but it does set up a framework and a basis for going forward.” She said she would like to do more work for rooftop solar and the zoning around solar generation, which she said can be murky.

Minchew brought up several ideas for next year’s General Assembly session, such as allowing community net power metering to allow towns and cities to share a solar array where there isn’t enough land or usable rooftop for individual solar owners. Currently only people with enough space and money for their own solar panels can take advantage of the new legislation.

“If you have a townhouse, or a condominium, or a small lot that doesn’t have good southern exposure, you may not be able to take advantage of that,” Minchew said. “The devil’s in the details, but I like the concept of allowing for community net metering through local HOAs, where local HOAs can form their own kind of mini co-op.”

He also said the time between legislative sessions is a good time to see what other state legislatures have done.

“Many times, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Minchew said. “We can pick up on what other states are doing.”

“I’m excited by the fact that farmers are going to be able to farm the sun,” Schaufeld said. Although she has no immediate plans to expand the solar array at her own property, she said it’s a benefit to the community in which she lives, Minchew agreed.

“I like the agricultural economic development aspect of it, because farmers can use this as a way of making money,” Minchew said.

“I live on agricultural land, I’m surrounded by wineries and vineyards and breweries and horse farms,” Schaufeld said. “I think it’s vital to the quality of life in Virginia to have and support small family farms, and I think this is one more tool for them to survive and prevent that land from going to other uses that are not as beautiful.”

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