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David Murray column: Solar key to Virginia Clean Economy Act's success
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Virginia Clean Economy Act

David Murray column: Solar key to Virginia Clean Economy Act's success

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Virginia is approaching the one-year anniversary of the enactment of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), landmark legislation setting the commonwealth on course for 100% clean energy by the middle of the century.

Despite the unprecedented challenges of the global pandemic, the VCEA already is delivering on promises to create well-paying jobs, invest in rural and urban communities alike, and build a skilled workforce for the 21st century.

Solar power will represent the lion’s share of new renewable development in Virginia under the Clean Economy Act. Building 16,000 megawatts — seven times what we have built today — represents enough electricity to power 3 million homes.

Solar reduces carbon emissions, makes our electric grid more reliable and grows our economy — one of the key goals of the VCEA.

In 2020 alone, Virginia jumped from 19th to fourth in the country for solar installations. Virginia is experiencing some of the fastest solar jobs growth in the country, increasing 120% since 2015. Solar jobs are high-value, high-skill, high-demand jobs, where workers earn a greater wage compared to similar industries.

Installation and construction-related positions still represent the majority of the solar industry, but manufacturing, sales and distribution, and maintenance positions also are growing quickly.

Much of that growth can be attributed to the VCEA’s policies to incentivize the installation of solar on homes, schools and businesses — known as distributed generation or “DG” solar.

DG solar continues to soar in popularity as more households and businesses choose to generate their own electricity from their rooftops. Distributed generation employs more than half of the nation’s entire solar workforce and mainly consists of locally owned small businesses.

As Virginia becomes a leader in solar, we must attract students from all backgrounds to the solar workforce, retain talent to keep up with demand and reflect all communities in the commonwealth.

Since 2015, the national solar industry has seen a 39% increase in representation for women, a 92% increase for Latino workers, an 18% increase for Asian American and Pacific Islander workers, and a 73% increase for African American workers.

In an effort to address economic disparity, drive workforce development and increase the diversity of the solar industry, the VCEA gives first preference to economically distressed communities for both job training programs and the siting of renewable energy facilities.

This year, the General Assembly approved a $300,000-per-year allocation to Southside Virginia Community College for the SHINE Solar Workforce Training Program. The SHINE program equips a qualified and inclusive solar workforce with the experience to enter the solar industry with a competitive edge.

The industry hopes to replicate the success at Southside Virginia Community College at Virginia’s excellent technical colleges and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

The impact of solar lasts beyond jobs — in fact, solar deployment can be a key tool in finally ending the broadband divide in Virginia. The pandemic only exacerbated growing regional connectivity disparities and the need for broadband expansion.

Under legislation supported by the solar industry, Virginia now allows solar developers to offer voluntary payments for local capital projects, including broadband deployment, in addition to the tax revenue collected on the project.

In these situations, solar directly is responsible for connecting and modernizing the lives of thousands of Virginians through broadband deployment.

This emphasis on educational opportunities, and delivering the economic benefits of solar power toward rural and fenceline communities, will ensure the Virginia Clean Economy Act fully realizes its commitment to equitable outcomes.

Virginia’s ambitious goal of being carbon-free by the middle of this century will enable all Virginians — from schools, to businesses, to your neighbors down the street — to embrace solar to the full extent of the VCEA.

Industry leaders will continue to work with lawmakers and localities to facilitate a rapid solar transformation that will bring equity, connectivity and economic prosperity to all corners of Virginia.

Local and state officials can take advantage of the opportunities offered by solar through favorable permitting, workforce development, government procurement and awareness campaigns.

Doing so will allow us to build on this first year of success and achieve our forward-thinking goals as a commonwealth.

David Murray is executive director of the Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association. Contact him at: david@chessa.org

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