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New Solar Project Comes to Virginia

A first of its kind solar energy project is now on Virginia’s grid. The BARC Electric Cooperative is operating a 1,750-panel solar energy garden and offering customers in Bath, Alleghany, Augusta, Highland and Rockbridge counties the chance to purchase a portion of their energy needs from the central facility. For a 20-year fixed rate, project subscribers can get up to 25 percent of their average energy consumption fulfilled with solar power from the communal facility located in Rockbridge. The project also features an educational center designed to help visitors understand solar energy.  

Governor Terry McAuliffe officially commissioned the new energy project on Monday (8/29). 

“Virginia’s short and long-term energy security depends on the investments we make today in energy technology and infrastructure,” the Governor said at the event. “BARC’s community solar project is an excellent model for stabilizing and reducing energy costs, while delivering clean solar power to large segments of households on the grid.”

The new solar garden will power 203 homes and 9 businesses across the counties BARC services. CEO Mike Keyser tells 88.9 WCVE this will also mark the first time BARC is generating power rather than purchasing and delivering it to customers from an outside source.

The company reportedly charges $4.90 for each unit of solar energy used. Even though, 1 unit of BARC solar energy costs customers about a dollar more upfront, advocates praise the fixed rate saying it provides protection from possible non-solar energy cost increases over time.

“For 20 years, that [solar energy] rate will never increase,” says Amanda Love – a spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Community Development (the agency responsible for distributing a portion of grants to fund the project). Love also says the central array extends the benefits of solar to a wider group of people like renters, homeowners with physical barriers (like trees and shading) and people who simply can’t afford solar infrastructure.

“The other unique thing is that 38 percent of all the subscriber revenues from this solar project will be set aside and especially earmarked for the project’s expansion,” Love told 88.9 WCVE in an interview. “So, the project will actually fund its own growth.”

The solar garden has been in the works since last spring when the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) first announced available grant money. The solar energy garden proposal beat out about half a dozen others and was ultimately funded with $500,000 of grant money from the ARC and $250,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. BARC CEO Mike Keyser says the company also put up a $600,000 match to create the program.

“We are very proud to be the first power company in the commonwealth to offer community solar to our members, as well as the first to offer a hands-on learning experience to area schoolchildren at our solar learning center,” said Keyser in a written statement.

The nonprofit cooperative serves about 12,000 customers across 5 rural counties in southwestern Virginia. In the company’s August 2016 newsletter, Keyser says there’s a growing interest in solar power and points to the new program’s 20-member waiting list.

The move to solar energy has been a priority for McAuliffe’s administration. Last year, he set first solar energy goal for state buildings – declaring they should run on 8 percent solar within the next three years.

“We will continue to invest in energy infrastructure and support innovative approaches to bring low-cost, renewable energy to all corners of the Commonwealth.”