Lawmakers OK bill to bring solar to low-income communities

Lawmakers OK bill to bring solar to low-income communities
The General Assembly has passed a bill that aims to increase access to renewable energy for lower-income communities. (Source: Sun Tribe Solar via Capital News Service)

By Macy Pressley | Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly passed a bill that aims to increase access to renewable energy for lower-income communities. House Bill 573, introduced by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, amends an existing solar development pilot program that requires utility companies to invest in renewable energy.

Keam’s bill adds the criteria of low-income communities to the current law. The pilot program allows utility companies like Richmond-based Dominion Energy to supply residential and commercial customers with solar power from independent solar farms throughout the state. Keam’s bill mandates that utility companies have to ensure some of these farms are within a low-income community. He said Virginia needs to prioritize renewable energy and has fallen “really behind” in moving from fossil fuels to cleaner energy.

“It's a creative way of trying to encourage more solar to be provided and incentivized at every level of Virginia,” Keam said.

The bill defines low-income communities as places where 50% of households have incomes lower than 60% of the area median gross income or have a poverty rate of 25% or more.

“This is a way to help identify a community through a pilot program and work with various stakeholders to pool our resources,” Keam said. “It allows one community to find its own generated solar to serve themselves, make a little profit and use the excess energy for other needs.”

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, said he cosponsored the bill because it focuses on low-income communities. Hurst represents the 12th District, which includes low-income communities such as Radford with a poverty rate of 30.4%, nearly three times the national average.

“It is imperative that we advance renewable energy solutions for Virginia families—part

of that is making it affordable for everyone,” Hurst said in an email. “Too often we find ourselves addressing issues retroactively even when valuable technology already exists.”

Hurst said that the situation was urgent, especially for low-income families.

Kristin Vinagro, director of communications for Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity, said the bill would have a positive impact on the organization’s clients.

“At Richmond Habitat for Humanity, the majority of our homeowners earn below 60% of the area median income, which means they are living on a very fixed budget with little disposable income at the end of the month,” Vinagro said in an email.

She said the bill could help decrease utility costs and increase monthly savings.

Rayhan Daudani, media relations manager for Dominion Energy, said Dominion is in the process of establishing a site for Community Solar, the official pilot program name.

“Community Solar is a way for interested customers to opt in to a program to access clean energy for part or all of their usage,” Daudani said in an email. “Dominion Energy’s first site will come online later this year. We appreciate efforts to provide access to solar for low-income residents.”

Devin Welch, CEO of Sun Tribe Solar in Charlottesville, thinks the bill will help expand solar use to more communities. Sun Tribe Solar works with businesses, schools and government organizations to provide solar, including in rural areas of Southwest Virginia.

“Building a clean energy future we can all be proud of starts with ensuring that more communities throughout the commonwealth have a chance to see the benefits of solar power,” Welch said in an email. “With this legislation, we can take another step forward towards making that future a reality.”

Keam also introduced HB 572, which removes the 1% cap on the amount of solar or renewable energy that can be net metered in a utility service area. The bill allows residents, nonprofits and schools to more easily seek and secure alternative energy sources such as rooftop solar. That bill and a similar Senate bill are both in conference committees.

“Other states have gone way above us in terms of encouraging [renewable energy] by having tax credits, subsidies, or allowing for their power utility to provide solar as part of their energy offerings,” Keam said.

He said the state’s economy has remained strong, but “it doesn't mean that everybody in Virginia is doing well.”

“For every wealthy family in Northern Virginia, where I represent, there are many, many lower income families struggling in other parts of our commonwealth,” he said.“My goal is to ensure that one of their fixed costs, the energy bill that they pay every month, is reduced as much as possible.”

HB 573 now heads to the governor’s desk.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.