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Despite lawmakers lifting caps on school and government solar, COVID-19 slowed growth

Solar panels on the roof of Powhatan Elementary School.
Solar panels on the roof of Powhatan Elementary School.(Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
Updated: Jun. 12, 2021 at 11:46 AM EDT
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POWHATAN — More than a year after the dozens of solar panels that blanket the roofs of Powhatan Elementary and Powhatan Middle School hummed to life, state and county officials finally cut the ribbon on the project.

“In 2020, when the General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, this is what we were forecasting,” said Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield. “This is what we hoped for.”

But while the Powhatan solar arrays were illustrations of one of the Clean Economy Act’s goals of expanding school and local government solar, they were also representative of another force that has shaped those plans for the past 15 months: COVID-19.

Since the Virginia Clean Economy Act went into effect on July 1, progress on school and government solar has slowed considerably. In 2019, according to records from the State Corporation Commission, developers in Dominion Energy territory filed applications for 84 projects to supply solar to public institutions through a financial tool known as the power purchase agreement. Installations from completed projects were significant enough to land Virginia on a list of top 10 states for school solar capacity.

Then came a double whammy. The state program that authorized solar power purchase agreements was halted for several months in January 2020. Soon after, COVID-19 shut down the state. Between May 2020, when Virginia began accepting project applications again, and June 1 of this year, only 23 applications were filed.

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