Loudoun residents advocating for shifts on solar policy, taking their case to Richmond

Times-Mirror/Kelsey Brunner

One of the most powerful lawmakers in Virginia toured a Loudoun County solar farm Tuesday night, where he discussed and dissected the intricacies and challenges of advancing a solar energy agenda in the Old Dominion.

State Sen. Frank Wagner, a Virginia Beach Republican who chairs the Senate's Commerce and Labor Committee, was a central attendee of the tour and panel discussion at the Leesburg farm of Fred and Karen Schaufeld. Wagner is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2017.

The Schaufelds have a keen interest in solar power. They've installed a sprawling, 474 kW array of solar panels at their property, and they're lobbying lawmakers to craft more solar-friendly legislation in the commonwealth, which consistently ranks near the bottom of solar-friendly states.

While receptive of solar, Wagner said Virginia will rely predominantly on coal, natural gas and nuclear power for years to come. That's largely because the energy infrastructure is already in place, he said, and Dominion Power runs essentially a state-regulated monopoly for energy providers.

"There is no one single solution for energy. While some people espouse that it's got to be all renewables or it all has to be coal - there is no one easy solution for energy in Virginia," Wagner said, adding that the General Assembly works at a gradual pace.

"We don't change things rapidly,"he said "" we work very slowly and methodically so we hope we don't screw something up."

Prospect Solar's Nick Messer, left, and Loudoun County farmer Avis Renshaw speak about the specifics of the solar array on the Schaufeld farm in Leesburg. Times-Mirror/Kelsey Brunner

Karen Schaufeld has worked with Wagner and state lawmakers to craft legislation for this session aimed at solar policy shifts, including permitting by rule and agricultural net metering, which would allow solar farmers to make income from their properties.

Currently, Virginians who have installed solar panels at their properties or businesses can only receive credits for future bills, not actual money.

"What we're talking about with net metering, we're never going to write you a check," said Wagner. "We will pay you wholesale rate for any excess electricity you generate. If you generate more excess electricity than your bill, then we'll give you credit to the next electric bill."

Wagner said the Schaufeld-backed legislation is a "fundamental shift in philosophy" to "make money" via solar on open space that isn't being used for other purposes. He predicted the legislation will easily pass the Senate, but he didn't venture a guess on its outcome in the House of Delegates.

Schaufeld said she's spoken with local Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33rd), Del. Randy Minchew (R-10th) and other Loudoun legislators, most of whom are on board with her proposals.

"Look, I live in a rural area, and I care about having options for farmers - that's why I care about it," Schaufeld told the Times-Mirror after the event. "Solar, in all of its forms, needs to come onto the grid."

The Leesburg businesswoman and philanthropist said the discussed bills, set to be introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session, "should ease things and create a little bit more a market" for solar.

Virginia received an "F" in solar policy grading from the Center for Biological Diversity, and the state ranked 35th in the annual solar rankings from www.SolarPowerRocks.com.

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