Dominion Invents New Dirty Trick to Kill School Solar in Virginia

Our blog posts often talk about successful solar projects at schools, hospitals, and businesses. But this post is different. It’s about how our customers had to scale back their plans for solar power or even put off solar altogether. It’s a tale of frustration.

We’ve worked on K-12 schools all over Virginia for nearly 15 years. We especially value projects at multiple campuses in one school division that spread the benefits of solar to more students while achieving economies of scale that give schools the most money savings.

The Washington Post

But, as our President Tony Smith told the Washington Post recently, we have now started avoiding larger projects at schools in the territory of Dominion, which covers the most populated areas of the state — Northern Virginia, the Richmond area, and Tidewater. Other solar developers have started doing the same.

That means schools won’t reap the benefits they anticipated in terms of going green and saving money on energy.

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars over a 25-year period in savings over what they would otherwise pay to the utility,” Smith said.

Why? It’s not because schools don’t want solar anymore. Quite the opposite: demand has never been higher. The problem is that doing larger solar projects at schools has gotten too expensive. And that’s due to a recent, shocking, and stealthy move by Dominion.

Dominion’s conspiracy against solar schools

At the end of 2022, without approval from state regulators, Dominion unilaterally (and quietly) changed the rules for mid-size solar projects to connect to the public electric grid. They started requiring solar customers to install new equipment that could double the price of mid-size solar projects.

The company claims that requiring solar customers to install fiber optic cable and a relay panel is needed to shut down solar systems in case of an emergency to protect their workers. But no problems were reported under the old rules. And no other major utility in the country has the same requirements as Dominion’s new rules. Less expensive (and more effective) ways are used by utilities to safely interconnect larger distributed solar projects in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii that have much more mid-sized solar than Virginia.

So the new interconnection rules start to look like just a sneaky way to make mid-size solar projects too expensive to complete. And that would be good news for Dominion. Since requiring expensive new equipment is clearly not about safety, it appears to be only a clever scheme for Dominion to kill their competition.

The problem for Dominion’s business is that solar schools are hugely popular. And schools can usually get a better deal if they go solar on their own, with help from a competitive independent solar developer, than if they use any of Dominion’s captive solar offerings for schools, which tend to be more expensive and offer weaker added benefits including educational programs and workforce development.

So, if Dominion can squash or at least deflate independent solar projects in a quiet way through burdensome technical requirements, then the company can avoid public scrutiny — and public outrage. As Aaron Sutch, Atlantic Southeast regional director for Solar United Neighbors, told the Washington Post:

“There’s nobody that’s against putting solar on schools or churches and municipalities. Dominion is purposely blocking larger-scale distributed solar projects [more than 250 kilowatts] because they don’t own them. And instead of saying that, which is an untenable, indefensible position, they’re imposing bureaucratic barriers.”

Monopoly Utility Greed Is Costing Our Schools

The Post article lists a handful of viable solar projects that Dominion’s new interconnection rules have managed to shrink or kill at schools, local governments, churches, and small businesses, including:

  • Fairfax County hoped to save $60 million per year by going solar on more than 100 government buildings including schools. The county finished six projects before Dominion’s new rules, but after the new rules, additional costs caused Fairfax to downsize two projects and put four others on hold.
  • From its start in 2019 until the new rules were imposed, Norfolk Solar installed more than $2 million worth of solar projects at a community center, two historically Black churches, and a family-owned roofing company. After the new rules, they’ve completed no new projects.
  • Secure Solar Futures’s own customer, Prince William County Schools, cancelled plans to put solar on Freedom High School after Dominion added $1 million in additional costs.

It’s not just about our companies and our customers. Dominion blocking solar means that schools have less money to hire teachers, hospitals have less budget to care for patients, and churches can’t achieve their goals for environmental stewardship.

And all so the management and shareholders of a monopoly utility company can put more money into their own pockets.

Dominion wins — but Virginia’s kids, parents, taxpayers, and small businesses lose.

Our company, along with fellow solar developers who are members of the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, has provided state officials with examples of many more projects blocked by Dominion’s new interconnection rules. For more than a year, our group has been in conversation with the State Corporation Commission, the state’s utility regulator, in hopes that they will suspend Dominion’s new rules and then roll them back entirely.

Along with our allies in other solar development companies, environmental advocates, and consumer watchdogs, we plan to continue to fight to restore the ability for Virginia’s public schools to get affordable solar on campus.

We encourage all Virginians who support school solar to speak up by contacting your state legislators. Ask them to stop Dominion’s bullying and let schools make their own clean solar power to save money and bring clean energy into the classroom.

Written by: Erik Curren