State’s voluntary solar energy donation program attracts scant interest

September 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

In the two years since the state set up a voluntary donation fund to make loans for solar energy projects, the program has achieved net contributions of less than a dollar.

And it has made no loans.

“The numbers don’t bespeak a huge interest,” said Al Christopher, director of the Energy Division at the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Through April 26, contributions to the fund amounted to $319.54, but the monthly transaction fees to accept online donations totaled $319.00, leaving a balance of 54 cents, according to a state report on the program.

“Even though information about the program is widely available,” the state energy agency said, “contributions to the fund have been minimal.”

Contributions ran from a low of $5 to a high of $50, and generally have been small donations of $5 to $10, the report said. Donations can be as small as $1.

The report did not say how many people donated.

Solar energy stakeholders told the state energy agency that the fund needs $500,000 to $2 million to begin accepting applications for loans, the report said.

The General Assembly created the Voluntary Solar Resource Development Fund in 2011. The revolving fund is supposed to provide loan money for eligible solar energy projects, and as loans were repaid, money could become available for new loans.

Eligible projects include photovoltaic electricity generators, solar water heaters and solar space heaters at homes, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

In a survey of participants in the department’s Renewable Energy Rebate Program, “the vast majority of respondents indicated they paid cash for their (solar energy) systems,” the state agency reported.

The average installed cost for a home solar photovoltaic system was $37,000 for 5 kilowatts of generation, the state energy agency said, and the average installed cost for a residential solar system to heat water was around $11,000 for the equivalent of 6 kilowatts of power.

The solar fund was designed to be fueled primarily by donations from customers of investor-owned electric utilities, though the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy can accept donations from other people and groups.

Virginia electric utilities are required to provide a link on their websites to the state energy agency’s website, where customers can make contributions to the fund.

On Tuesday, Dominion Virginia Power’s and Appalachian Power’s links to the donation program were not available. After inquiries from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, both links were working Wednesday.

“The broken link on our website has been fixed,” a Dominion Virginia Power representative said Wednesday.

According to Appalachian Power, the link was interrupted when its address was changed without the company being notified.

With nearly 2.4 million customers, Richmond-based Dominion Virginia Power is the state’s largest electric utility. Appalachian Power, based in Charleston, W.Va., serves more than 500,000 customers in Southwest Virginia.

Utilities also have to provide opportunities for customers to donate through their paper newsletters, emails or bills.

Virginia law says money donated to the fund and interest on that money remain in the fund, and do not end up in the state’s general fund.

The law setting up the fund expires July 1, 2016.

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