Solar groups say a $55 minimum bill for shared solar is ‘impractical’

Solar energy advocacy groups say a Virginia regulator’s recommendation that Dominion Energy charge ratepayers who sign up for a new community solar program a minimum monthly bill of $55 would be the highest charge in the world. country and would hamper the program by making it too expensive

The minimum bill will “severely compromise the ability to attract customers if they don’t have a reasonable level of savings to participate,” said Charlie Coggeshall, director of policy and regulatory affairs for the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a group that works in about a dozen states across the country to encourage community solar power.

“It will definitely deter many Virginians from participating,” said Tim Marvich, vice president of distributed energy resources for Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy.

Dominion, however, argued that a high minimum bill is necessary to avoid shifting costs from ratepayers who choose to participate in the program — known as shared solar in Virginia — to non-participating ratepayers.

“The suggestion that shared solar customers should expect to receive significant discounts off their standard bill by virtue of their participation in the program – and that the law would require this type of economic incentive – is extraordinary and unprecedented,” said the company wrote in a brief to the Crown Corporations Commission in January.

“As with any program, solar developers may ultimately determine that participation in the shared solar program is not in their best economic interest. It’s their decision to make,” the company’s lawyers continued. “The fact is, the law does not require the commission or the company – on the backs of non-participating customers – to guarantee that developers will find the shared solar program a worthwhile investment.”

In a community or shared solar program, several households agree to buy part of the energy generated by a solar panel.

Such projects are touted as a way to increase access to solar energy among tenants and people unable to use roof panels due to insufficient sunlight or poor roof conditions.

“The ability to put solar power on your roof isn’t available to everyone,” Coggeshall said. Community solar power, he said, “is really an easy way to expand access.”

Since 2017, lawmakers have encouraged the development of community solar. That year, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring Dominion and Appalachian Power to develop community solar programs. Dominion’s Virginia Community Solar program has been dormant for several years, but company spokeswoman Lucy Rhodes said Monday that it “is expected to launch in May and has thousands of customers pre-registered.”

In the meantime, the 2020 General Assembly directed the creation of a Shared Solar Program in Dominion Territory that would operate on the same general principle as the existing Community Solar Program but would be structured along somewhat different lines. Under the legislation, third-party groups would develop community solar installations, recruit interested customers and sell the electricity to the utility. Participating customers would get a Dominion bill credit proportional to the electricity produced by the facility.

The law also directed CSC to set a minimum monthly bill for shared solar customers to cover their “fair share of the costs of providing electrical services” and to “minimize costs passed on to customers who do not participate in a solar program.” share “. Low-income customers, who were expected to represent 30% of the customer pool, were exempted from the minimum bill.

Rhodes said requiring a minimum bill to avoid cost shifting is “the fairest and fairest way to administer the program.”

The State Corporation Commission regulates electric utilities in Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

But how much that minimum should be has been controversial. The Coalition for Community Solar Access proposed that it be $7.58. The State Corporation Commission offered two options: $10.95 or $55.10. And Dominion pushed for $75.10, a suggestion that led legislation bosses to write a letter to CSC saying the proposal would “limit the practical availability of the program to the wealthiest energy customers.”

Last February, SCC Hearing Examiner Mathias Roussy recommended that the commission go with the $55.10 proposal, which was calculated by adding the company’s base service charge to pre-existing non-avoidable fees, a $1 administrative fee, and variable fees for distribution and transmission services based on customer usage.

Solar advocates said if approved, the minimum bill would be the highest such charge for community solar power in the country.

“All successful programs in the country, there’s no type of administrative cost or anything on that level,” Coggeshall said.

Asked about circumstances in Virginia that might require those costs to be higher than in other states, Rhodes said “IIt is difficult to compare shared solar programs across the country, given the different utility structures, markets, legal requirements and other differences between states.

The Coalition for Community Solar Access and the nonprofit Appalachian Voices both argued that Roussy’s recommendation is flawed because it ignores the benefits that shared solar power offers to the grid and accepts the assertion. of Dominion that the program would shift costs to other customers without solid evidence.

Roussy noted in his recommendation that “it is correct that there is no evidence on file that specifies exactly what cost change would occur under Dominion’s proposed minimum bill, or any of the other proposed minimum bills.”

“If Dominion was so dumbconcerned about the costs being passed on to nonparticipating customers, it should have made efforts to support its proposal with evidence quantifying this alleged cost shifting,” Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Will Cleveland wrote in a brief for Appalachian Voices. . “Failure to meet this burden of proof should not result in program participants incurring completely speculative costs that have not been substantiated by evidence.”

Marvich said Apex has always been interested in developing community solar power in Virginia, but “it’s been a challenge working in the Commonwealth.”

“The development part is usually the hardest part,” he said. “But it turns out that this regulatory thing with Dominion is the hardest part.”

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