REC to offer increased solar power amid Trump tariff

Solar energy may soon come surging into the homes of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative customers.

The power company announced Tuesday it was seeking approval of a pilot program that would allow its members to opt-in to receive a dedicated, predetermined amount of solar power each month. Currently, slightly more than 1 percent of members’ power comes from solar energy.

“We’ve had a lot of our folks ask us about solar and wanting us to add it to our regular generation mix, and so we started doing that, and now we have additional folks saying, ‘I’d like to get more of it,” said Matt Faulconer, REC manager of external affairs.

“So this is a way that they can get more than that (one) percent,” he said. “If it is successful, as we think it will be, then maybe we’ll start to add more solar to either our regular generation mix, or we may build additional facilities, offer additional community solar opportunities.”

Faulconer said solar energy will cost REC customers 10.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with the current rate of 7.6 cents. Customers who elect to join the program will lock in that rate (for the solar portion of their bill) for the duration of the three-year pilot period.

REC’s announcement comes exactly one week after the White House imposed a tariff on solar cells and modules Jan. 23. The rate starts at 30 percent in 2018 and steadily declines to 15 percent over a period of four years.

The bipartisan U.S. International Trade Commission ruled 4-0 in September 2017 that imports of solar technology into America were coming at such a high quantity that they threatened serious harm to the domestic industry. According to Paula Mints, chief marketing research analyst for SPV Market Research, the U.S. imported more than 96 percent of its electricity-producing modules in 2017.

“This is for solar products, so that we’ll be making solar products now much more so in the United States,” President Donald Trump said Jan. 23 as he signed the tariff proclamation. “Our companies have been decimated, and those companies are going to be coming back strong.”

However, reactions to the tariff were mixed.

Intended to stimulate domestic solar panel manufacturing, U.S.-based solar manufacturers generally lauded the decision. And on Monday, JinkoSolar, a Shanghai-based firm, became the first company to announce plans for a U.S. solar factory after the tariff– though Mints said that factory has been in the works since 2012.

Linda Bergkamp, managing director for Christensen IR, a consultant to JinkoSolar, said the plans for the firm’s American factory will likely not be finalized until the end of February, and said she could not comment on the tariff’s role in JinkoSolar’s announcement.

Trump’s tariff met a chillier reception with companies that depend on low-priced solar technology, such as energy producers competing with traditional fuel types and companies that install solar panels in homes, businesses and municipalities.

Faulconer said the tariff is unlikely to play a role in REC’s pilot solar program. If the program is a success and the company decides to build more solar facilities, he said, the tariff may then affect the price of the facility, though he declined to say in what direction.

One company anticipating financial setbacks as a result of the tariff is Virginia Solar LLC, which received approval in May 2017 to construct a 15.65-megawatt solar electricity generating facility in Mount  Jackson.

“Does it (the tariff) directly affect the project? The answer is obviously yes. Is it a good thing? Obviously no,” said Matthew Meares, Virginia Solar partner. “It’s not helping the economics of the project when I have to compete against natural gas. So is it going to make it easier or harder to get the project done? It’s going to make it harder.”

However, he emphasized that the scale of the tariff’s impact is still unknown.

“Now, is it going to have a huge impact? I don’t think so, but I really can’t say for sure,” Meares said.

Virginia Solar has not yet broken ground on the 160 acres in Mount Jackson and is still working through the permitting process.

Other area electric providers are also seeking new ways to incorporate solar technologies into their service.

For example, Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative currently obtains approximately 0.5 percent of its power portfolio from solar facilities. Preston Knight, SVEC spokesman, wrote in an email that the company has ambitions to bolster this percentage.

“SVEC is exploring ways to increase the use of solar in our service territory, which includes the concept of a voluntary community solar project,” Knight wrote. “At this time, SVEC continues to investigate these options.”

REC is waiting on approval for its community solar pilot program from the Virginia State Corporation Commission. According to a news release, the company expects to receive approval in spring and begin offering solar subscriptions this summer.