Business, Energy, Environment, West Virginia Legislature

Solar advocates promote the economic potential of community solar projects in West Virginia

MORGANTOWN – Community solar power offers an alternative way for homeowners and businesses to save money and to stimulate the economy, a group of solar power advocates said in a Thursday press conference.

They hope a bill to enable community solar will get some legislative attention and traction during the remaining interim meetings and the 2023 session, they said.

Solar United Neighbors (SUN) and West Virginians for Energy Freedom teamed with Downstream Strategies to describe a report prepared by Downstream Strategies on the potential benefits to the state.

Leah Barbor, SUN state director, first described what community solar is. Right now the choices are to buy solar from your local utility company – which can be more expensive – or have solar panels installed at your home, which is problematic if you’re renting or situated in a shady area.

Community solar is where a community or an entrepreneur sets up a small solar farm. A household or business then subscribes to receive power from that farm and receives credits – based on shares measured in kilowatt hours – to offset a portion of its regular utility bill.

Community solar is offered in 21 states – including neighbors Maryland and Virginia – and Washington, D.C., she said.

Matt Pennington senior planner for Downstream Strategies and report lead author, said the concept arose in small communities where residents decided to erect a small solar farm and share the power among themselves.

Now it’s expanded, he said. An entrepreneur might choose a site for a farm and recruit subscribers. Not every person in a neighborhood or every business on a block has to sign on; subscribers can come from various locations, though the subscriber base is still generally geographically limited to the service area of the local utility company.

One method that makes community solar commercially viable for entrepreneurs, he said, is to recruit an anchor subscriber – something like a university or a big retailer or medical facility, for instance – with a big power demand. That anchor subscriber will take a big portion of the power output – usually around 40% – and could then offer shares for the remaining 60% to its employees.

That’s only an example, he said. An entrepreneur setting up a system could sell shares to anyone.

In West Virginia, he said, community solar can also be attractive for agricultural operations. Panels cold be erected on land where livestock grazes, or on the roofs of poultry houses, doubling the commercial benefit of the land or buildings.

Looking at economic benefits of community solar, Pennington said West Virginia is behind its neighbors, with less than 1,000 solar jobs. Kentucky has 1,000 to 3,000; Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia each have 3,000 to 5,000 solar jobs; and Ohio has 5,000 to 10,000.

“The market is robust for employment in this sector,” he said. Deployment of solar power here could create 1,630 direct jobs and $248 million in direct economic output. Secondary effects could be another 840 jobs and another $139 million in output.

Subscriber savings will vary based on usage, he said. Typical savings is 1-2 cents per kWh, so a house using 1,500 kWh would save $15-$30 per month. That’s small, but statewide, if 200 megawatts of community solar were built, aggregate savings could be up to $5.3 million.

The report shows that in Minnesota, the Red Wing School District leases property to a solar project and expects to save $7 million in power costs across the life of the project. In New York, Albany Medical Center subscribes to a project and saves more than $150,000 per year. Also in New York Walmart – with a 2040 net-zero goal – subscribes to 23 community solar projects totaling 50 MW of power.

During the 2022 session, Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia and a principal of Downstream Strategies, introduced HB 4561 to enable community solar development in the state. It didn’t get on a committee agenda, but Barbor said they hope it will get on an interim committee agenda (in November or December) and get some traction for the session, which starts in January.

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