Solar panels. CL Shebley / Shutterstock.com.

At a time when communities and consumers across the Commonwealth are demanding more energy that is locally produced, affordable and reliable, Virginia leaders are pandering to the utilities to the detriment of residents and businesses. Instead of providing ratepayer relief from inflationary energy costs, the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) just approved Dominion Energy’s request for another rate hike of nearly $15 per month – all while utilities are bringing home record profits. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy).

The time has come for the General Assembly to put people over powerful monopolistic utility companies. One way lawmakers can do that is to pass common sense legislation that would offer Virginians access to an expanded shared solar program that generates energy bill savings. Shared solar is a program created in 2020 that allows Virginians to “subscribe” to the energy produced by a small off-site solar installation.

Utility companies have a guaranteed return on investment. Take Dominion, which is guaranteed to generate profits equal to 9.35% of equity. In the past five years alone, Dominion has over-earned by hundreds of millions of dollars. Those dollars are over collections of monies from ratepayers and delivered to shareholders, including Dominion’s executives, as profits above and beyond their guaranteed return on equity. And, just this summer, another rate increase was approved to help the company recover from volatile fuel prices. An expanded shared solar program would insulate consumers from those volatile fuel prices.

Rather than provide financial relief to consumers, the SCC approved rules governing Virginia’s shared solar program that included a $55 fee to participate, which is among the highest in the nation. Instead of helping Virginians save money by enabling them to subscribe to shared solar, bureaucrats in Richmond put those savings out of reach – and allowed the utilities to maintain their stranglehold on our energy choices.

But, enough is enough. 

A recent poll performed by a respected Virginia pollster found 61% of voters were less likely to vote to re-elect their legislator if they support current barriers to shared solar access and savings in the Commonwealth. 

At the same time, a new economic study released by the Coalition for Community Solar Access showed that reducing barriers that block consumers from participating in shared solar programs would generate 12,000 new jobs and cultivate nearly $5.6 billion in economic activity. New solar developments also can be constructed on marginal land, paying landowners, including generational family farms, $12 million in annual lease payments.

By increasing the number of shared solar installations throughout the state, Virginians will have more locally produced clean energy to power their homes and businesses.

Shared solar developments are an economic win for landowners, ratepayers and their communities. For years, Virginia families fortunate enough to own their home and afford the costs of rooftop installations have reaped the savings of solar energy. However, for those who rent or cannot afford the upfront costs of installations, those savings are not an option. 

The creation of more solar projects will expand Virginia’s shared solar program, effectively reaching more communities throughout the Commonwealth. Families that participate in shared solar programs save typically 10 percent or more on their power bills at a time when many are seeking financial relief from inflation.

Moving toward cleaner sources of energy would increase Virginia’s energy independence and make us less dependent on volatile fossil fuels – something we all should be able to support. As a member of Norfolk City Council and chair of the region’s resilience subcommittee, I would be remiss to not mention the importance of diversifying our fuel mix away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable sources to mitigate the effects of sea level rise and their impacts to my community. 

Virginia lawmakers should be helping their constituents save money – not lining the pockets of the utility companies and their shareholders. Now is the time for lawmakers to get out of the way and let Virginians benefit from shared solar.

Andria McClellan

Andria McClellan is a member of the Norfolk City Council, co-author of the Hampton Roads region’s first Climate Action Plan, chair of the HRPDC Resilience Subcommittee and a member of the Virginia Joint...