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New Appalachian Power contract to aid solar energy at schools, other public authorities

New Appalachian Power contract to aid solar energy at schools, other public authorities

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Greater incentives for solar energy at schools and other public authorities are part of a general agreement with Appalachian Power Co. reached Friday.

The agreement came at a meeting of a steering committee of representatives from the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, which negotiates a new contract with Appalachian every three years.

For the first time, the contract contains provisions that will make it easier for public authorities — schools, regional landfills, jails and water authorities, and city, county and town governments — to invest in solar energy, according to Rocky Mount Town Manager James Ervin, chair of the steering committee.

“It opens the gate to those localities that are on the verge of undertaking some of these projects,” Ervin said.

In the past, few public authorities in Western Virginia have used solar energy, in large part because of restrictions in their contract with the utility, according to Chelsea Barnes, new economy program manager for Appalachian Voices, a grassroots advocacy organization.

Only about a half-dozen schools have small, pilot projects — compared to about 130 in the service territory of Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, Barnes said.

The reason, critics say, was that Appalachian’s earlier contracts placed limits on net metering and power purchase agreements for its public authority customers.

Net metering, or a billing mechanism that credits solar energy users for the extra electricity they add to the power grid, was capped at 3 megawatts for the entire region.

The contracts also discouraged public authorities from reaching power purchase agreements, which offer cost savings by having a solar system owned and maintained by a third-party developer.

Details of the contract were not available Friday.

“The company has agreed in principle to the changes but has not set an effective date for the tariff implementation, pending finalization of the contract,” Appalachian spokeswoman Teresa Hall said.

Public schools could benefit the most from the new contract, in part because their buildings and campuses are well suited for solar panels. School systems, which have no taxing authority, are also eager to take advantage of the savings available through solar energy, and to use it as an educational tool.

Together, the 200-plus public authorities are Appalachian’s largest rate payer. The VML-VACO steering committee allows them to negotiate as a whole for fair rates.

Some have criticized Appalachian for not offering as generous solar incentives as Dominion. But that’s not a fair comparison, Ervin said, considering there is less economic growth in the area served by Appalachian.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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