Customers of Appalachian Power Co. would have the opportunity to purchase solar energy directly from a third-party provider under legislation being considered by the General Assembly.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has introduced a bill to expand a shared solar program, created for Dominion Energy in 2020, to include Appalachian’s 500,000-some customers in Western Virginia.
Shared solar allows people who are unable to install solar panels because they live in apartments or homes that don’t get adequate sunlight — or who can’t afford such projects — to purchase some of their electricity from an off-site facility operated by a private company.
The customers get a credit on their electricity bill for the cheaper renewable power they purchase, but must pay a monthly fee to their utility to cover its costs of maintaining the grid through which power is delivered.
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Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun, has legislation in the House of Delegates, HB 1853, that is similar to Edwards’ SB 1083.
“Virginians deserve access to solar and the option to participate in this community solution, but they are being blocked by geography and cost,” Subramanyam said. “This bill addresses both issues and paves the way for the commonwealth to be a renewable energy leader and meet its renewable energy goals and needs.”
Appalachian said that while it supports shared solar, it has concerns that non-participating customers will have to bear a greater share of the costs of providing electricity.
The company “feels strongly that those who are participating in the program should be the ones to absorb the cost,” spokeswoman Teresa Hall said.
“Shifting program costs to non-participating customers isn’t just or fair, especially at a time when the company is trying to keep costs and rate increases at a minimum,” Hall wrote in an email.
In comments to a State Corporation Commission work group studying the issue, Appalachian has pointed out that its service territory is far different from Dominion’s.
“Population density is lower, which will affect the allocation of transmission and distribution costs,” it said in written comments. “Most importantly, APCo faces population loss, declining load, and struggling economic development in its Southwest Virginia territory.”
The SCC set a minimum fee of $55 per month that Dominion customers would have to pay to participate in a shared solar program — which is intended to cover the utility’s losses that would otherwise be passed on to non-participating customers. The fee can be reduced or waived for those with low incomes.
Appalachian has a much higher number of low-income customers and would be disproportionately affected, it told the SCC.
After hearing such concerns Tuesday, a House Commerce and Energy subcommittee voted to suspend debate on Subramanyam’s bill while not killing it outright.
Subramanyam said he hopes to work with Edwards and other senators to find a way to advance his proposal, which also calls for a lower fee that customers would have to pay their utility.
At Dominion, two shared solar programs — a general one and a second multi-family plan — have been created as part of the 2020 law, but so far have yet to be implemented.
More than a dozen solar energy companies have expressed an interest in the general program, and customer sign-ups will begin July 1, a Dominion spokesperson said. There has not been any interest by providers in the multi-family program.
Appalachian currently does not have any shared solar programs, Hall said.
Nearly 3,000 of the utility’s customers, which include residences and businesses, have installed their own solar panels and receive credit on their bills.
The company is also expanding its utility-scale solar farms, which is required by a sweeping bill enacted by the General Assembly to fight climate change. There are currently three solar facilities — in Campbell, Henry and Wythe counties — that the utility either owns or purchases power from.
The Clean Economy Act requires Appalachian, which still gets the bulk of its power from coal and natural gas, to be carbon-free by 2050.