Although Virginia is often subject to unseasonable weather conditions that leave the atmosphere of the Commonwealth damp and cloudy, solar energy, usually located in more sunny, arid states is gaining massive traction. In the last few years, Virginia has become a leader in the solar energy industry, placing 10th among states in capacity, up from 17th the year prior, according to information from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
In a report from The Virginian-Pilot, the Microsoft deal two weeks ago was a landmark, historic revelation after the technology giant said they will make, “the single largest corporate purchase of solar energy ever in the United States,” when it begins purchasing energy produced by a 3,500-acre solar site near Fredericksburg in 2019. Microsoft plans to take nearly two-thirds of the power produced at the 500-megawatt plant.
As the SEIA predicts that Virginia’s total solar energy generation will triple to over 2,000 megawatts, or enough to power 200,000 homes, Fredericksburg may be just a drop in the bucket as expansion is also underway in the Hampton Roads area. In February, the Chesapeake City Council approved construction on a 32-megawatt solar farm in the Hickory area that is just one of dozens of similar projects popping up around the state.
In the proliferation of renewable energy in the U.S., Ivy Main, a senior volunteer leader with Virginia’s Sierra Club, said, “I think you’re going to see a lot more discussion about Virginia being a hot state for solar.”
“How much bigger the industry gets in Virginia is going to depend somewhat on whether we get our energy policies right,” she said. “But no matter what happens with that, we’re still going to see a ton more solar.”
In 2010, solar energy only contributed to three percent of new domestic energy production, topping out at 43 percent in 2016. Although it dropped to a 30 percent share in 2017, it remains America’s fastest-growing energy segment.
Currently, solar energy only accounts for approximately two percent of all electricity generation in the U.S., with only 0.5 percent in Virginia. Nevertheless, the upsides of innovations within the industry will see that those percentages are drastically increased in the coming years.
The installed costs of solar panels have decreased by 70 percent per watt of power generated between 2010 and 2016. In the same time, the demand for renewable, non-carbon-based energy has skyrocketed, leading farmland owners to look at leasing land for the establishment of solar farms as a means of income that shows bigger promise than traditional crop cultivation.
Regardless of the decade of increased solar production, industry experts claim that expansion may run flat this year after federal tax credits for solar energy installations are reduced and recent tariffs on steel and aluminum cause the price of production to rise. Nonetheless, as Virginia has attracted additional high-tech companies with data centers like Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, which favor renewable energy, the wave of solar production has a bright future in the Commonwealth.
Even though corporate leviathans have been the main proprietors of solar energy production in Virginia, small companies are now starting to get involved. Sean Gallagher, vice president of the SEIA, said in the report that commitments to using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, “now go well beyond the large companies. You’ve got thousands of smaller companies now who’ve been establishing similar goals. You’re not going to hear about that.” Nevertheless, as the small business sector becomes involved in the booming solar industry, the uptrend will begin to change the energy industry to become more competitive with producers of other energy sources.
The new corporate and customer demand has spurred recent new developments at Dominion Energy, Virginia’s top electric utility provider. Three years ago, Dominion had less than one megawatt of solar production in its total generation mix. However, it now has more than 745 megawatts in operation, under construction, or announced and not yet begun.
As they rolled out their 2017 Integrated Resource Plan, a blueprint for Dominion’s future development, the company claimed they would increase its solar capacity to 3,360 megawatts by 2032.
Katharine Bond, Dominion’s director of public policy and state and local affairs, said that, “substantial progress just in the past couple of years.” She explained that the company has realized that, “‘more and more customers who have an interest in renewable energy,’ and Dominion is striving to satisfy them.”
Dominion’s newfound mission to ramp up energy production could be the product of industry competition from non-utility players. Microsoft is contracting its energy needs through sPower, a joint venture of Arlington-based AES Corp. and a Canadian investment fund called AIMCo.
Green energy advocates claims that small businesses and residential customers find it harder to commit to solar as utility companies have just now warmed up to solar energy expansion. However, a piece of legislation passed through the General Assembly this year will assist with upgrades that Dominion says need to be completed on its energy grid. Lawmakers also declared that 5,500 megawatts of solar and wind generating capacity, a tenfold increase, across the Commonwealth is to be considered in the public interest
There is, however, one issue with the dramatic increase in solar energy production in Virginia – land area.
Dominion estimates that it will require 8,000 acres for every 1,000 megawatts worth of solar panel installation. One Democratic legislator proposed a target of 15,000 megawatts of solar energy production in Virginia, but it would require 120,000 acres, or twice the land areas of Portsmouth and Norfolk combines.
On the positive side, rapid advances in energy storage technologies are promising to make solar farms more efficient. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that storage capacity will double six times by 2030, allowing farms to be much more efficient. Also, by preserving more of the power produced in peak periods and releasing it out when the sun is not shining, will make every panel more productive overall.
“We’ve only really just begun,” said David Murray, the SEIA’s executive director for Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. Adding, “to unlock solar’s true potential.”
Therefore, storage is the key to the solar energy industry.