A Panel Presentation Recap from the 2019 Tom Tom Summit and Festival

by Francis Hodsoll and Melody S. Gee

Melody S. Gee is a business and technical writer in St. Louis, MO.

This April, SolUnesco CEO, Francis Hodsoll, moderated and presented on a panel at the Tom Tom Summit and Festival in Charlottesville. This annual event brings together a diverse group of thought leaders to discuss a revitalized approach to civic life and community, and this year devoted an entire day to renewable energy.

Hodsoll and three co-panelists, Chip Dicks, Will Reisinger, and Rachel Smucker, explored how Virginia legislators impact the adoption of clean energy technologies and focused on pricing, market structure, access, and innovation.

Transformative Legislation for Building Schools

John G. “Chip” Dicks, partner at Gentry Locke, began the session with insights into renewable energy and school modernization. This year, delegate Nick Rush and senator Bill Stanley sponsored legislation to create a new paradigm for financing public schools, including the use of solar energy and energy efficiency, to significantly reduce operating costs. This legislation, effective as of July 1, will enable private sector financing and reduce the burden on local tax-payers.

The financing model will leverage local taxes using Federal Investment Tax Credits for solar installation, Federal New Market Tax Credits, and Federal Opportunity Zones. All in all, schools could potentially see up to a 50% savings. Additionally, the legislation provides two financing options for private developers: local IDAs or EDAs, and the Virginia Small Business Financing Agency.

Chip Dicks has decades of experience with a strong and successful practice in the following areas: public and government affairs; digital and trusted information services; economic development; outdoor advertising; commercial real estate; land use and zoning; complex financing, including tax exempt financing; and landlord-tenant and property management. Chip is part of Gentry Locke’s new Richmond Office in the downtown SunTrust Building.

How State Policy Will Shape Energy Growth

Will Reisinger, a lawyer specializing in energy law and regulation, presented next on how state-level policy will determine the growth of clean energy supply in Virginia. To provide context, Will began with an overview of how, because of Virginia’s state energy regulation system, clean energy demand via market forces or consumer preferences won’t automatically result in more clean energy generation.

Back in 2007, the energy policy largely incentivized coal and gas, resulting in over 6GW of approved new generation between 2007 and 2015. During these years, we saw very little renewable or advanced energy investments, especially in comparison to North Carolina and other mid-Atlantic states. This is one example of how state laws have as much, if not more, influence over energy development than market forces.

Just recently, new policy has encouraged or, in some cases, required the State Corporation Commission to authorize new utility investments in advanced energy. Examples include: new solar and offshore wind projects, grid transformation investments, and energy efficiency program spending. These policy changes have resulted in a surge of renewable energy in a very short period of time. The bottom line for citizens: civic engagement at the state legislature level is crucial to ensuring that public preferences are reflected in state policy.

Will Reisinger advises renewable energy businesses regarding regulatory, business, and policy matters. He regularly represents clients before the Virginia State Corporation Commission and the Virginia General Assembly. Prior to entering private practice, he served as an assistant Virginia attorney general and staff attorney for a non-profit environmental organization in Columbus, Ohio. Will has been named multiple times as one of Virginia Business magazine’s “Legal Elite” in the category of regulatory and administrative law.

How Progressive State Policies Will Define Market Opportunities

Rachel Smucker, policy analyst at Secure Futures, presented next on the ways in which state policy must grow at the same rate as market demand in order to be a driving force for developing renewable energy. Her own experience with Secure Futures’ role in codifying Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) pilot program demonstrates how policy changes can shift the market significantly.

What the state needs now, argues Smucker, is timely and relevant state policy that can capitalize on the thousands of well-paying jobs, career growth, and investment dollars that renewable energy projects stand to contribute. She argued that Virginia needs to avoid setbacks like when the 2019 General Assembly killed a bill that would have expanded the PPA pilot program, despite numerous Virginia solar companies’ favorable testimony. This failure may now result in a four to six-month lull in the commercial-scale sector heading into 2020.

Our transition to clean energy is publicly desired and can benefit businesses and the environment. One way to have that public desire heard is to vote—all 140 seats in Virginia’s General Assembly are up for re-election this November. Citizens should hold legislators accountable for staying ahead of the curve and making solid commitments toward a clean and renewable future.

Rachel joined Secure Futures in 2017, after working for several years in higher education. She brings years of experience in marketing and public relations, as well as a passion for positively impacting communities through her professional work. As a clean energy policy advocate, she is driven by the hope and ambition that implementing cleaner electricity will lead to a more just and equitable world.

Supporting Local Authority in Solar Project Permitting

Francis Hodsoll focused on local concerns arising from their perceptions of uncontrolled growth and risks to the local character and future economic development with the solar industry’s rapid growth.

Speaking from direct engagement with numerous counties, Francis made the argument for resisting any efforts to reduce local control over zoning. The key zoning issues are county-level concerns. In particular, rural counties with often limited economic development are the ones who engage in solar development by re-purposing large tracts of agricultural land – timber and farming – to clean energy generation.  The counties perceive that in addition to the loss of agricultural land, they face risks from decommissioning and environmental hazards. When such concerns arise and municipalities’ resistance surfaces in the form permitting restrictions or non-financeable permitting conditions, solar projects get delayed. To be clear, the General Assembly has supported local authority by clarifying and streamlining how compatibility for permitting is assessed with the Comprehensive Plan and clarifying financial security for decommission planning.

Despite fears, the benefits of utility-scale solar development to these counties are clear and measurable: a 10-15X increase in net revenues with no impact on neighbors or local government services; thousands of new construction jobs; millions in local revenues; and high potential for future economic development. All this from projects that follow stringent good-neighbor practices like visual buffers to protect neighbor viewsheds, agricultural heritage preservation, run-off mitigation, and land restoration after decommissioning. These major benefits are crucial to local governments and should therefore be managed at these local levels.

Francis Hodsoll is the co-founder and CEO of SolUnesco, where he leads strategy, business development, policy, human resources, and community engagement. He has served as Board Member of the MD-DC-VA Solar Energy Industry Association, Chair of the Energy Workgroup for Governor McAuliffe’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, Committee Member of Governor McAuliffe’s Energy Committee, and Founder of the Virginia Advanced Energy Industries Association.