Solar for Energy Security

Value of solar detailed at the Sustainable Living Forum

By Roseanna Sacco

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of several about the Sweet Springs Sustainable Living Forum held at Sweet Springs, W.Va Aug. 16-18.

SWEET SPRINGS, W.Va. — At a time when humanity is facing many difficult and unsettling challenges, the goal of this year’s Sustainable Living Forum was to unite the mountainous border regions of the two Virginias to create an avenue for collaboration, community cohesion and resilience in a rapidly changing world.  The Sustainable Corridor Initiative is a vehicle for navigating that avenue to highlight existing solutions and explore new ones. 

The Solar Co-op is one such solution. It is an opportunity for members of a community to join forces and pool resources to ‘bulk purchase’ solar panels and installations at reduced cost. The Solar Co-op allows energy dollars to be reinvested back into local and state economies. It is a perfect example of the proverb, ‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much’, attributed to Helen Keller. 

The solar panels that powers the home of Autumn Long and her husband as seen from the home’s deck.

In a little over a decade, Solar United Neighbors, the non-profit promoting solar co-ops has evolved from a small neighborhood project inspired by two young students into a national organization working throughout the United States to provide affordable solar energy systems for homes, farms, and businesses. 

In addition to being a national advocate for solar, Solar United Neighbors provides direct and online assistance to new and existing local co-ops and also offers individualized solar consulting.

The Monroe County Solar Co-op began working with this organization in 2015 to facilitate three successive rounds of bulk purchasing and installation of over 16 solar systems, including the Public Library in Union.  

“Solar is an industry that creates jobs in our state and spurs economic development. It is a way to attract corporate investors who are concerned with meeting their corporation’s sustainable energy goals and who otherwise would not bring their tax base here.”

– Autumn Long, Program Director of Solar United Neighbors

At the Sustainable Living Forum, Autumn Long, Program Director of Solar United Neighbors in West Virginia opened her presentation by announcing the National Solar Tour, the largest grassroots renewable energy event in the nation, featuring over 700 Open Houses sponsored by local solar co-ops in 45 states around the country. She informed the audience that “The Open Houses provide an opportunity for residents to visit local solar installations and learn how they work.” 

In answer to the question “How can Solar benefit West Virginia?” Ms. Long stated, “If you pay an electric bill, then solar can help you save money. Solar is an industry that creates jobs in our state and spurs economic development. It is a way to attract corporate investors who are concerned with meeting their corporation’s sustainable energy goals and who otherwise would not bring their tax base here.”

Autumn Long

Regarding the cost of going solar for homes, farms and small businesses, she surprised the audience by saying, “For the average system, the cost to go solar is about what it would cost you to buy a used car… but it is still working 25-30 years later. The next two years,” she added, “are your sweet spot for federal tax credits.”  The federal solar tax credit, also known as the investment tax credit (ITC), allows you to deduct 30 percent of the cost of installing a solar energy system from your federal taxes. It applies to both residential and commercial systems, and there is no cap on its value. The eligible cost can also include any direct site preparation such as small repairs to the roof surface and batteries powered by solar panels. 

Ms. Long mentioned other financing solutions including the WV Equity Loan and the Rural Energy for America Program which provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to agricultural producers and rural businesses for renewable energy systems or to make energy efficiency improvements. She informed the audience that the grant provides up to 25 percent off the entire cost of new solar panel installations and that one of her activities includes writing these grants. The loan can cover up to 75 percent of the costs of a project. **

Ms. Long then discussed the importance of advocacy to ensure a fair market for solar. She explained the importance of supporting legalization of Power Purchase Agreements. The Power Purchase Agreement is a financial arrangement in which a third-party developer owns, operates, and maintains the photovoltaic (PV) system, and a host customer agrees to site the system on his or her property and purchase the system’s electric output at a fixed rate usually set for 10-15 years. It is a way for low-income households and businesses to go solar. She then informed the audience of a free website that will create and mail the constituent’s personalized postcard message to their state and federal representatives asking them to support and incentivize solar energy systems.***

Up to now, the emphasis has been on grid-tied solar systems which Ms. Long explained “recreate the energy grid in a way where consumers have the capacity to be producers as well. It means you are contributing to your local energy system and you get credited for what you produce at the end of the month.” This is called net metering. “It allows you to build up a bank of credit during the summer and draw upon it in winter, thereby lowering your energy costs.”

A solar-powered church in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Photo courtesy of SolarHoller

Addressing the fact that dependence on centralized systems makes local populations more vulnerable, Ms. Long launched into “The role solar can play to create a more secure energy system.” Battery storage is a way to use solar for energy security. Storage systems can be sized for off-the-grid usage or for critical usage only, for example to power a well pump and refrigerator. She informed the audience that a  Battery Storage Guide can be downloaded at no charge on the Solar United Neighbors website.****

Solar systems with battery backup provide individuals and vulnerable communities with resilience in the face of natural disasters by their ability to source power when the electric grid goes down. Cities such as San Francisco are already incorporating solar + storage into emergency response plans to improve resilience. New York is promoting micro-grids which are small-scale energy grids featuring  solar + storage as central components in emergency planning.

Ms. Long evoked the possibility of installing such a micro-grid powered by a solar array in a well-situated area in Monroe County next to or not far from a shelter where people could go during an emergency power outage or prolonged grid failure to access running water, cook food and have heat.

Referring to the current prevalence of extreme weather events, she concluded, “Historically, we would just flip a switch. This is changing the way we think about energy.”

* For info on Solar Open Houses open to the public free of charge in the vicinity of the two Virginias and over 700 other locations, please call Roseanna at 304 536 1207 or visit: www.nationalsolartour.org/map/?emci=e1c06c46-56cf-e911-bcd0-281878391efb&emdi=de48ca52-24d0-e911-bcd0-2818784d4349&ceid=676659

**For more information about the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) loans and grants, please visit: www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/rural-energy-america-program-renewable-energy-systems-energy-efficiency

***To send a postcard to your state and federal representatives, go to: www.ilovemy.solar

**** To download the Battery Storage Guide, go to: www.solarunitedneighbors.org/learn-the-issues/solar-storage/

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