Solar biz wants Virginia to get serious about clean energy

Altenergy's president thinks policies like the federal solar tax credit have been helpful in growing small businesses in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Altenergy)

Altenergy’s president thinks policies like the federal solar tax credit have been helpful in growing small businesses in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Altenergy)

By Peter Voskamp

Paul Risberg, president of Charlottesville-based solar company Altenergy, is the first to point out that renewables have faced an uphill climb in Virginia. The state has traditionally had low fossil fuel-based energy costs and its government has offered few incentives for clean, renewable energy.

When Risberg started Altenergy in 2005, there were less than 2 megawatts of solar power capacity installed in the entire state; a decade later, there are only14 megawatts – far underperforming the increase of solar in neighboring states like North Carolina, which has more than 1,000.

Nevertheless, Altenergy has steadily grown over its decade in business, having completed 600 installations totaling to 2.9 megawatts combined. In 2015, Altenergy expects to install 1.5 megawatts of solar capacity in the commonwealth alone.

The company’s 30 employees have helped it expand into nearby Maryland as well as Idaho and Georgia.

Initially, Altenergy’s primary market was small residential systems between 5-7 kilowatts. While residential solar remains a substantial part of Altenergy’s business, it has increasingly moved into commercial installations, from 50-kilowatt systems up to 500 kilowatts. Risberg estimates that commercial installations now constitute nearly 70 percent of his business.

Thanks largely to market expansion, solar panel costs have dropped to a quarter of what they were a decade ago. When Altenergy installed its first photovoltaic system in 2006, the cost per watt was approximately $6.50. That number is now close to half of that for residential systems, and approximately $2.50 per watt for commercial systems.

In Risberg’s experience, small-scale solar projects remain the most viable in Virginia in the current political conditions. The ideal Virginia solar candidate – from both a financial and environmental standpoint – will consume the electricity on site (eliminating long distance power transmission, and also qualifying for net metering) and who can pay cash (no debt or investors).

“That’s how we get solar built in Virginia,” Risberg said.

Altenergy is involved in a variety of projects that utilize the federal Rural Energy For America Program (REAP), which awards grants to qualifying small businesses to cover 25 percent of the cost of a renewable energy system. The REAP grant, combined with the federal 30-percent tax credit, makes installing a solar system attractive financially: 55 percent of the cost covered with the promise of future reductions – if not elimination – of electricity bills.

Altenergy is currently working on a half-dozen such projects, including a carpentry workshop, a trucking company and a flower shop.

One such business, Modern Boy Woodshop of Staunton, Va., is now generating 95 percent of its electricity needs from its new solar array. Owner Paul Borzelleca was able to install a $40,000 solar system for half the price with the help of the REAP grant and tax credit.

Another customer, the Boise Co-Op in Boise, Idaho, generates 5 percent of its electricity needs via a 124-panel array installed by Altenergy – enough electricity to power five homes.

Risberg applauds the 30-percent federal investment tax credit, which unless Congress acts is set to expire at the end of 2016.

“Works like a charm,” Risberg said. “Works like it’s supposed to.”

The dearth in Virginia’s renewable energy capacity can be traced primarily to inaction from the state legislature. While other states like North Carolina have instituted mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) for utilities, there is no such requirement in Virginia to include renewable sources in the electricity mix; it remains voluntary.

At the end of the day Risberg’s primary motivation is to reduce environmental impact, especially in the realm of mineral extraction in a state with a large coal industry presence.

But he would like to see more progress at the legislative level. “We need an RPS,” Risberg said.

Peter Voskamp can be reached at info@cleanenergyworksforus.org.