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Commentary: Solar has bright future in Virginia
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Commentary: Solar has bright future in Virginia

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So much has been unpredictable these past months.

We’ve had to get resourceful and creative in all aspects of our lives, improvising and adapting how we live, work, learn, and engage with one another. Over the last year, we’ve spent more time outdoors, and paradoxically, we’ve stayed home more, too.

Through it all, we have become more aware of our energy consumption — not only in terms of its impact on our personal budgets, but how it affects our environment. With the recent shortages of fuel, we’ve also been forced to reckon with the vulnerability of out of state supply chains. Individually and collectively, many of us have begun to make changes, at home and in our communities, shifting to clean and renewable sources of energy generated right here in Virginia.

That’s where solar shines the brightest.

Solar is a predictable, homegrown source of energy that benefits communities and local economies. Across the Commonwealth, Virginians are reaping the many benefits of solar in reliable, locally-generated energy, increased tax revenue, and new jobs. If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that the sun will rise each day, providing energy to power homes, businesses, and industry.

Where solar goes, good things follow. Well-planned solar projects, small and large, create jobs and inject a surge of capital into localities in the form of tax revenue. Communities benefit from solar in decreased energy cost burdens and additional revenue that can be dedicated to local schools, public utilities, and local governments. In addition, solar projects afford relief to families and small businesses with the highest energy burdens. And the abundance of employment opportunities associated with solar helps to bring wealth to low- and middle-income communities.

Virginia, indeed, is geographically well-situated to take advantage of the sun’s power. In fact, the same sunlight that has made Virginia an agricultural powerhouse over history positions the Commonwealth to be a national leader in the unstoppable shift to renewable energy right now. As larger scale solar farms become more common, the introduction of pollinator-friendly and animal-grazing techniques for vegetation management can benefit the environment and help maintain the agricultural character of the landscape.

In 2020, Virginia adopted the Clean Economy Act, setting firm objectives for achieving a carbon-free power grid and advancing the transition to clean energy sources such as wind and solar. Although the Act’s deadlines of 2045 for Dominion Energy and 2050 for Appalachian Power seem a long way down the road, the transition to renewable energy sources, particularly solar, is well underway — and gaining momentum.

According to the 2020 National Solar Jobs Census prepared by the Solar Foundation, the industry employs more than 231,000 people across the country. The Solar Foundation predicts that number to exceed 400,000 jobs by 2030, and that employment will need to exceed 900,000 workers by 2035 to reach the 100% clean energy goal set by President Biden. Virginia solar jobs grew by an astounding 483% between 2012 and 2020. Over 4,300 Virginians are employed in the industry today.

As federal and state renewable energy initiatives (like Virginia’s Clean Economy Act) roll out, those numbers will continue to soar. With an abundant, diverse and well-trained workforce, Virginia is ready to keep pace with the solar industry’s burgeoning demand.

Opportunities related to solar technologies abound, with compensation above or on par with similar trades.

Solar jobs are not limited to installing panels atop a roof. While installation jobs do comprise the largest segment of the industry, they are but pieces of a much larger picture. Solar embraces more than 40 different career paths. Well-paying jobs, both skilled and unskilled, are integral to the success of any solar venture — residential, commercial, community, or utility-scale.

My organization, Solar United Neighbors, has facilitated nearly a thousand solar installations on homes in Virginia since 2014. We’ve seen installation companies grow from literally five guys and a pickup truck to now employing hundreds of workers across Virginia and the region.

Every solar project, from a home rooftop system to a large-scale utility farm, draws upon the contributions of engineers, electricians, equipment manufacturers, system designers, sales personnel, and field installers. In addition, it takes accountants, office managers and non ‘boots on the roof’ employees to support and administer all scales of projects. And because solar has to be built locally, jobs in related industries, such as material supply, construction, and even hospitality, increase when solar projects arrive.

Solar employers need dedicated workers to fill a wide variety of roles. Women and minorities are securing good jobs in solar; veterans, too. In fact, increasing number of solar companies are women or minority-owned. Employers have found that military skills translate particularly well to the solar industry, and industry programs connect transitioning military personnel with solar training and employment opportunities.

Welcoming more solar to all areas of the Commonwealth will ensure that Virginia enjoys a robust and prosperous future built on clean, locally-generated energy. This is a future nourished by Virginia sunshine and fed by a diverse, well-trained workforce from local communities- ready to fill essential roles.

Let’s ensure that across Virginia, and particularly in the Central Virginia region there’s plenty of opportunity to get to work.

Here comes the sun!

Aaron Sutch is the Virginia Program Director and Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for Solar United Neighbors. He develops and manages Virginia solar co-op programs, provides technical support for residents and organizations going solar, and coordinates policy advocacy for distributed solar in Virginia.

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