It’s not easy being a solar guinea pig. But in the Commonwealth of Virginia, that’s what many of us have become. I’m talking about the thousands of others like me rolling the dice to solarize their home and see if it pays off despite an unfriendly atmosphere. At times, it can feel a little bit like you’re on your hamster wheel going around in circles. Solar energy in Virginia is still in its primordial phase.
The state ranks an abysmal 38th out of 50 states, according to Solar Power Rocks. Virginia boasts anemic state tax credits, rock bottom renewable energy credits, weak RPS laws (which encourage diversification to more renewables) and lots of other impediments. We’re talking about a meager 241 megawatts compared to 1,591 megawatts in Massachusetts. Much of this is due to the dominance of one power company, Dominion Energy (feel free to swing by their Facebook page to give them a piece of your mind after this post). They dictate not only what kind of power most customers get but also dictate terms to legislators in the capital of Richmond.
I started getting suspicious of Dominion when I examined my utility bill and discovered that the company actually wants customers like me to pay a $10 monthly premium to access renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Solar is one of the cheapest forms of energy available thanks to years of innovation. Why would I pay more? Is it to dis-incentivize choosing clean sources? Or just some decades-old premium payment scheme that hasn’t been re-evaluated? Legacy sources like coal simply can’t compete with low-cost solar. Check out these charts:
But Dominion has spent millions of dollars convincing the public, politicians and banks that we need vast pipelines criss-crossing the state to supply “clean” natural gas. Natural gas is not clean, it’s cleaner than coal but it’s not a renewable resource. It’s a fossil fuel and will run out. It also requires chemical-laced water for fracking that seeps into the water table and poisons it or in some cases, makes it flammable. And proposed projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will scar the countryside like the pipelines before it. I think this parody video says it all:
Environmentalists like me feel they have no choice but to go solar out of a sense of justice, financial freedom and planetary responsibility.
There is a bold vision far on the horizon, which I believe in. It’s called the distributed grid. Imagine a world where homes like the ones you or I own are not only end-users of electric power but generators as well which sell back to the utility’s grid. We’re talking about democratization of solar energy where the customers ARE the grid, not some distant power station.
In this world, Dominion’s business model becomes a service – managing excess capacity produced by basically everyone and distributing it efficiently, while more and more of its own power generation facilities move to solar and wind. Imagine if Dominion could become a service provider like your cable company, not a fossil fuel industry that poisons the water, scars the countryside and warms the planet.
The first step to get there, if you’re a homeowner, is to start solarizing.
Fortunately, the state cracked the door open a little in late 2016 with its ‘net metering’ law. Net metering basically allows your electricity meter to count forwards and backwards. When you use energy from a utility’s grid, it counts forward and you pay. But when you generate your own electricity, the meter counts backwards and you get credit.
In some progressive states like California, you can earn credits indefinitely in summer months and even get paid cash by California Edison to excess power you produce. In Virginia, you only earn credits from Dominion. It’s helpful in lowering your bill. You can achieve savings of up to 70% and draw upon it in the winter months. But you can’t really have a say in what energy source that remaining 30% comes from. It’s probably coal or natural gas.
The upshot is this: when a critical mass of Virginia households go solar to save money or the environment, it forces companies like Dominion to adapt. This can trigger the democratization of energy, something they don’t want. They want a monopoly.
With climate impacts getting worse and worse and about 10 years left on the clock if we burn as we do now, we need to solarize fast. And since I’m one of the guinea pigs, I’d like to outline, for you the reader, five easy principles to go solar in Virginia.
Pick The Right House
My wife and I were in the market for a new home because we needed more space. One of the criterion I had was identifying a new roof that gets enough sun exposure throughout the year. We love trees so we also wanted a canopy in the yard. After looking at several homes, we found one with a a lot of roof space facing south, exposed to the sun much of the year, but with lots of trees. Picking a house without southern exposure or too canopied by trees can lower your solar potential.
Here’s a Google 3D map rendering of our house. Fortunately, you can now use tools like Google Project Sunroof to assess your current or future home for solar potential. This tool will even estimate the size system you need and point you to finance options in a matter of seconds.
Investigate Which Companies Are Driving Your Local Market
The second step is to find out which reputable companies actually service your state or neighborhood. I reached out to companies I knew to be leaders in residential solar – SolarCity Tesla Energy, Vivint Solar, Sunrun, Ipsun Power, and a few other local providers. Because Virginia net metering is so new (November 2016), many national companies did not yet devote sales resources to cracking the Virginia market. So I got a lot of “We don’t operate where you live” e-mails in my inbox. Ipsun Power was an exception. A small hungry startup but man, they understand solar and have a real personal touch. (Ask for Herve.)
SolarCity, for example, had its eyes on Virginia because it was successful in helping Maryland reach critical mass, which for a while had generous payback for renewable energy credits (RECs) for each megawatt (MW) of energy. Here’s a rendering of Maryland vs. Virginia solar penetration from the lens of SolarCity. Big difference.
I did advance the conversation with a few providers and have them design a system. Like Project Sunroof, many companies can just “eyeball” your potential using public satellite data and 3D modeling with your address. If it looks good – then someone actually comes out to measure your roof dimensions and meters and supply a more detailed 3D rendering with unit size, kilowatt potential, panel placement and total cost. Our 3d rendering looked like this:
Another punitive regulation that needs challenging is Dominion caps the size of system of your roof so you can’t generate lots of excess power. That’s simply unfair. But that’s how monopolies behave. It would be nice to work to have this overturned.
Find sensible financing
The third key thing to do is to find sensible financing for the unit once its designed and priced out. The financing of home solar systems went through a sea change in the past couple of years. Originally, the business model was the solar unit was owned by the solar company and you leased the unit from the solar provider. But it wasn’t yours.
People didn’t really warm to that model and adoption stalled. So solar companies started making deals with finance companies and banks to provide low-interest, zero-down financing so the customer owns the unit outright and adds equity to the home. Interest rates are creeping up but if you shop around, you can find a solar company that can offer as low as 3% financing with zero money down. Terms that good probably won’t last forever so that’s one reason to act sooner rather than later. But it is more competitive than the rate you get on most homeowner’s line of credit or home loans, currently between 4 and 6%.
Take advantage of federal tax credits while you can
Fourth, take advantage of the federal renewable energy tax credit before it expires. Let’s say you settled on a 10 KW system for about $30,000. According to federal tax law, you can claim the solar tax credit or investment tax credit (ITC) next April. This means you’ll get a 30% deduction, in this case about $10,000, if you fill out IRS Form 5965. But after 2019, that amount starts decreasing rapidly to about 10% in 2022. And to be honest, anything can happen in the Trump administration, which is clearly hostile to alternative energy. Better act now.
Evangelize For Solar and Wind
Fifth, preach the solar gospel. At the end of the day, we went with SolarCity / Tesla Energy – for competitive financing, handling all of the paperwork, a really nice sales and support team and Elon Musk is a personal hero. Ipsun Power was a close second and they actually do government buildings and churches, too!
The good news is by going solar, you immediately signal to your neighbors that you care about saving money, care about the planet and that it anyone can do it because it’s on your roof. It also puts money in your pocket by reducing your bills immediately by 60 – 70% and you save up credits for colder months. Data shows that there is a social effect when you solarize, your neighbors are more likely to consider it. In fact, Google’s Project Sunroof, is starting to mark who in your neighborhood has solarized. A new spin on keeping up with the Joneses. It also adds equity value to your home for the day that you sell it. The next owner gets an amazingly low electricity bill.
If you look at Virginia a few years into the future, if we have energy leadership from our elected officials really trying to carve a pathway for new economy jobs for the working class, we can actually employ WAY more people in solar installations in residential, corporate retail and government buildings. I encourage you to check out Mark Ruffalo’s non-profit The Solutions Project. They’ve actually mapped out a viable pathway to renewable energy for all 50 states and residential solar clearly plays a strong role in turning the tide – 4.2%. We can actually get there!
I’ll close with this – now having become a SolarCity / Tesla Energy solar ambassador, I like sharing this video which essentially has the optimism of a climate activist organization but from a progressive private company. American innovation at its best.
We are in residential solar’s infancy but on the cusp of true innovation in solar power. We are entering an era where products like the Tesla Solar Roof and Powerwall are pushing the market so people can eventually go off grid if they choose, generating and storing their energy locally with more elegant panels.So why not become a guinea pig like me?
At the end of the day, I’m paying about $50 more per month out of pocket with no upfront costs. I’m lowering my family’s carbon footprint and teaching my son how we can be part of the energy revolution so that when he’s my age, democratic distributed energy is just the new normal. Please reach out to me if you need more information about how to take the solar plunge.