Dominion Power and Randolph-Macon College dedicated 256 new solar panels on the roof of the school's science center earlier this year.

During protests against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of the repeated arguments has been the need for more solar power in Virginia. That however comes at a cost, one which individuals and some companies have to decide if they’re willing to pay.  

Solar power is the conversion of sunlight into electricity. The process uses panels of lenses or mirrors with tracking systems that focus a large area of sunlight into a narrow beam. Using a photovoltaic effect, light is converted into voltage or electric current, which can be used as a source of power. The panels are usually attached to the roof of a building, but there are also some freestanding models available.

A heavy price to pay

Despite the need for alternative energies, the upfront costs for solar can be a struggle for the average home or business owner to afford. Even the smallest system at three kilowatts of energy can take more than $10,000 out of a potential buyer’s pocket, according to Jeff Nicholson, a sales and installation professional at Sigora Solar in Waynesboro.

“I usually tell people to expect the price to be between a new car and used car,” Nicholson said. “That can be different for every person.”

A smaller system might cost about $10,000 up front, while a larger system can be somewhere around $30,000, he explained. Once the system is in place, a homeowner will begin to save money, Nicholson said, especially if the system is big enough to wipe out the need for any other type of electricity.

“It’s not an instant return, but over the long haul, it’s really good,” Nicholson said. “As long as you have good sunshine, it will pay for itself in eight or nine years. It has a guaranteed life span of 25 years, but it’s more like 30 years.

“There are no moving parts – other than the electrons making energy – and nothing to break,” he added. “Some people wash their panels, but most forget they’re up there. Solar is the most effective in Virginia; the wind does not blow as hard or often as needed for wind power.”

While the price is still high, the cost has dropped by about 50 percent in the last five years, though, thanks to some creative solutions.

Virginia Sun is a state project put together by Community Power Network that helps create local solar energy cooperatives. The co-ops are designed to give discounted rates to a group of homeowners interested in going solar, said Ben Delman, communications director for CPN. Going solar on one’s own is can be very expensive, he added, but in a co-op, the whole group gets a discount.

“Using a solar co-op is a way to make it more affordable and help folks go through the process of installing a system,” Delman said. “Virginia Sun will work with a local group of people to help grow a co-op in their community.”

Augusta County now has a co-op with 60 members. The Augusta County Solar Co-op is currently in the process of hiring an installer, who will bid on the project and offer individual estimates in the next few months. Each home is inspected to make sure the roof is stable enough to support a system. Then, each home owner in the co-op chooses what kind of system they want and they will receive a discounted rate simply for belonging to the co-op.

“Co-ops allow the installation companies to buy panels in bulk, which saves both parties money,” Delman said.”The installer can also save time by pulling 20 or 30 [solar] permits at the same time.”

The costs have dropped enough that larger companies are getting involved in the push for solar. Earlier this month, Amazon announced it would be buying energy from a solar farm in Accomack County. The farm, currently under construction, will use 250,000 solar panels, spread out over a 900 acre area. All total, it should produce enough to power 15,000 homes in a year. Dominion Virginia Power is also involved in the push for solar. The company earlier this year put together a project with Randolph-Macon College, installing 265 solar panels on the roof of the college’s Copley Science Center. That project will generate up to 50 kiowatts of electricity, company officials said, enough to power 13 houses. Dominion also has a project to build a 2.45 megawatt set of panels on Philip Morris USA’s property in Chesterfield County.

A choice for power

Ann Murray owns a 100 acre farm in Augusta County and joined the new co-op after she saw one operation in Rockingham County. Murray has been waiting to go solar for quite awhile and saw the co-op as a chance to affordably help the environment.

“I would love to use solar. I really feel that we need to do our part to keep our environment and air clean,” Murray said. “I drive a hybrid, I dry my clothes outside and I try not to drive when I don’t need to.”

Currently, Murray is waiting patiently to see which area installer will be chosen for the project. Once that is done, the installer will come out to her farm to see how many panels would be viable. The installer will also give her a quote for how much the project will cost up front – including the discount – but Murray will not be obligated to purchase anything. Murray is not sure how many panels she can afford until the inspection is completed.

“The group has been easy to work with,” Murray said. “I want to use it to heat water, run lights and get some power. “We’re not trying to get off the grid; I don’t think that’s very realistic. I just want to do my part.”

“It sounds like a good thing all around for me and the environment,” she added.

The U.S. also offers a federal tax credit of 30 percent that is available to taxpayers who install solar power in their homes. The Energy Policy Act was first established in 2005 and was extended in 2008 for eight more years as an incentive for more people to try solar power. The credit is currently set to expire in December 2016.

“The co-op is creating a clean source of energy, which is why a lot of people are interested,” Delman said. “Generating a clean, local source of energy is important.”

Pioneering solar in the Valley

Bradford Staffing is a locally owned staffing agency in Verona that decided to take a leap this year. Last week, the company finished installing 40 solar panels to run the length of the roof, with the ability to power up to 100 percent of the business’ electricity.

“We just think it’s the right thing to do,” said Mary Jorgensen, who owns the company alongside her husband, Thomas Jorgensen. “We’d like to be the leader in promoting more businesses and people to go solar and check it out.”

Bradford Staffing received a grant for $9,000 to help cover the cost of installation. The project cost about $30,000 up front and the grant paid for about 25 percent of that cost. Jorgensen acknowledged the high price, but said it would be worth it down the road.

“It’s an upfront cost, but in the long run it’s going to be good,” Jorgensen said. “It curbs a lot of our electricity and we’re hoping it will be less than a four year payback.”

During the day, the solar panels collect the sunlight and make energy that can be used in the business. If the company uses more energy that what is produced by the panels, backup electricity will be available from a traditional source.

 “When we first turned it on, it was a super sunny day,” Jorgensen said. It was making what we were using, but we’ll probably have to use Dominion from time to time.”

Despite some uncertainties, Jorgensen said she wants to see more businesses look into going solar. For her business, the power of solar means helping the environment and saving money on electricity.

“We’d like to be a leader in our community educating people on solar,” Jorgensen said. “It’d be nice if more businesses would step up to the plate and research what’s out there.”

In 2012, before the Augusta County Solar Co-Op was born, Augusta County resident Sandy Greene decided to take a chance on solar. Greene and her husband, Joe, had the panels installed on the roof of their barn and since then have barely thought about them.

“It was just easy as pie,” Greene said. “We are thrilled. We make all the power we use here in a year. It’s just been so easy.”

“Our job now is to find more ways to use the energy in the daytime,” she added, laughing. “We have a plug in lawn mower. We can’t believe how wonderful it is. There’s plenty of sun for everyone.”

Greene and her husband spent about $17,000 on 26 solar panels, but she said the cost will be worth it in the long run. With her husband retiring and a tax credit dangling in front of their eyes, Greene knew there would never be a better time to switch.

“The price has gone down a lot since we got it,” Greene said. The big factor was the 30 percent tax credit, but that’s expiring n 2016. There’s not much positive thought that it will be renewed. It was meant to get people to go solar in the beginning.”

“The costs keep going down and our payback time is eight to 12 years,” she added. “We’re still on track. [Solar] is the norm in other parts of the world and we’re just a little slow.”

For Greene, making the leap to solar has been nothing by a benefit for her family, she said. She has not had to make any changes to her lifestyle and hopes more people will look into switching.

“There’s no change, except we just feel good about it,” Greene said. “We have as much power as we need all the time.”

“Once you make that leap, it doesn’t feel weird anymore,” she added. “The initial cost is hard to stomach, but we knew we would be happy. It just makes you think differently. I would say it’s a more comfortable lifestyle because we don’t feel so guilty.”

A matter of factors

Unlike some alternative energy sources,solar power systems can be installed in a number of environments, including most across the Shenandoah Valley. All someone basically needs is a structurally sound roof with access to a lot of sun, according to the Community Power Network, a nonprofit network of organizations across the country working to build renewable energy projects at the local level.

“Solar can be put on most types of roofs,” said Delman. “There have been a lot of innovations with rack equipment to make installation easier. Slate roofs are doable, but they are a little more difficult to install, so some installers will do it, but some will not.”

“Ideally, you want a roof that’s fairly new and facing south, to catch more sunlight,” he added. “You also want a non-shaded roof, so that an installer won’t need to work around a tree or chimney.”

The size of the roof is also an important factor, Delman said, and often determines how much a home can rely on solar power. The amount of energy that can be generated depends on the size of the system – how many panels can be installed – which depends on how much roof space is available.

“If you have a nice big roof, you can put more panels on and develop more energy,” Delman explained. “Smaller systems produce less energy. Generally, we’ve found that folks can offset anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of their energy usage.”

The solar panels are simple to maintain and very rarely have any trouble, according to the homeowners the News Virginian spoke with. There are no moving parts that are prone to break and the panels are extremely resistant to harsh weather conditions, including high speed winds, hail and snow.

By the numbers

Overall in 2014, solar accounted for just 0.4 percent of electricity generation in the United States, while wind power accounted for 4.4 percent and geothermal power for 0.4 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal came in at the top with 39 percent of the electricity generation, while natural gas followed at 27 percent and nuclear power came in at 19 percent.

The U.S. generated about 3.3 billion kilowatthours worth of solar power in 2012, but in 2013 that number jumped to 8.0 billion kilowatthours. In 2020, the EIA estimates the U.S. will generate close to 29.7 billion kilowatthours from solar power and it is expected to increase by 6.8 percent every year until 2040.

“Wind and solar generation account for nearly two-thirds of the increase in total renewable generation…Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is the fastest-growing energy source for renewable generation, at an annual average rate of 6.8 percent,” according to a 2015 outlook report by the EIA.

For more information about the Augusta County Solar Co-Op, visit The deadline to sign up for the cooperative is Sept. 21.

Follow Lauren Berg on Twitter @LBergTNV

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