Building a solar market and creating jobs in Southwest Virginia’s coalfield counties

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In the seven counties at the southwest tip of Virginia, coal is often called “the original solar industry” — the power of the sun trapped in organic matter and buried underground millions of years ago. But with the state now committed to closing all coal-fired generation by 2024, the region is opening up to a second wave of solar with a new public-private initiative focused on installing 10-12 MW of solar across the region by 2023.

“Our plan of attack is what we call 5-5-10,” said Tony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures, the Virginia benefit corporation that has joined the new collaboration between nonprofit, private, public and educational groups in the region. “Over the next three years, we intend to develop what are called ‘ambassador sites’ in the seven coalfields counties to include a mix of five commercial buildings, five multifamily buildings and 10 schools.”

The seven counties participating in the initiative are Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise counties. Other partners in the “Securing Solar for Southwest Virginia” project include Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit focused on health and environmental issues; the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) and Mountain Empire Community College, which offers solar training classes. 

Secure Futures is giving $50,000 to the college to beef up its solar training and is also funding a local startup, Lonesome Pine Solar, that will provide installation services for Securing Solar projects and apprenticeships for Mountain Empire’s solar trainees. The goal for job creation by 2023 is modest — 15 permanent solar jobs.

The solar industry has been growing steadily in Virginia — in 2019 generating just under 4,500 jobs versus just under 2,900 for coal — but the state’s clean energy transition has been slow in coming to the southwest counties. The region has a handful of commercial installations — including a 140-kW array on the DMME’s local office — very little residential and no utility scale projects, said Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development at Appalachian Voices.

Building a local solar industry began in 2016 when Appalachian Voices, Mountain Empire, the DMME and other local groups formed the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, itself an offshoot of larger efforts to promote post-coal economic diversification across the region. The workgroup has been the driving force behind the new initiative.

Virginia’s Clean Economy Act — signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in April — should spur solar growth statewide. The law requires Virginia’s two largest utilities to decarbonize their systems, Dominion Energy by 2045 and Appalachian Power Company (APCo) by 2050. But, according to Tony Smith of Secure Futures, regulatory barriers still exist in the southwest counties.

For example, APCo does not allow third-party ownership for certain solar customers, such as schools and local governments. Its recent request for proposals for solar projects totaling 200 MW specifically requires utility ownership. Similarly, a local co-op, Powell Valley Electric Cooperative, offers no programs for residential solar or net metering, beyond a Tennessee Valley Authority green energy program, charging residents an extra $2 a month.

Smith is hoping to be able to work with the utilities on third-party ownership and net metering, but he said, further legislative tweaks to the Clean Economy Act may be needed. His goal is to identify his first ambassador site by the end of the year and the rest in 2021. Developing a strong commercial market will, he said, also help build residential solar and support a permanent solar workforce.

Miles Smith, a graduate of the Mountain Empire’ energy technology program — and no relation to Tony Smith — is ready. His solar training enabled him to find work as an electrician, he said, but the job involves regular travel away from his family. The opportunity for solar jobs “is something we need, and we need it in our backyard,” he said.

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