Solar Focus 2015: How Can Solar Continue To Grow Beyond 2016

Last week, I took two days off from being a college student, donned a suit coat and pressed slacks, and traveled to Washington D.C. for the Solar Focus 2015 conference. Hosted by the Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industry Association (MDV-SEIA), this conference drew representatives from solar businesses and advocacy groups spanning the region to discuss how the mid-Atlantic will adopt and respond to a quickly changing energy landscape.

According to a Duke University report, Virginia could supply most of its energy demands using economically viable solar and wind power alone. Yet, Virginia lags behind many of its neighboring states, with only 15MW of solar energy installed as of 2014, compared to North Carolina having 1088 MW installed. The question then arises, why is solar not being installed in Virginia if it has the necessary natural resources and infrastructure to do so? It is my belief this was one of the burning questions Solar Focus attendees were wrestling with. This question was the elephant in the room; everyone was thinking about it, but no one knew how a clear way forward should be best established.

It is impossible to assess Virginia’s energy landscape without taking into consideration the impact president Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) will have on the state. The goals of reducing carbon emissions, promoting clean energy while reducing America’s dependency on foreign energy are all very achievable under the plan, with solar power leading the way. Yet, because Virginia has not yet decided on how to best meet its 37 percent emissions reduction target, there is much uncertainty of what will happen to the industry in the short run.

Because the solar industry in Virginia is still in its infancy, this is a crucial time to ensure the industry is protected and able to grow. It is the task of the solar industry to use their collective voice to ensure that Virginia adopts strong legislation that gives incentives to solar generation for residential, commercial, and utility scale solar projects. To make solar attractive for the energy market, it has to reach a certain economic viability. One way to reach this viability is through economies of scale and a reduction in soft costs.

Unlike digital products, almost all processes that have been related to energy production have been invented more than 20 years before they saw widespread scaled usage because of little trade secret or patent protection provided to developers. The greatest challenge the solar industry faces, then, is not greater efficiency technology, but carving a path where solar is economically profitable in a diverse market.

At the MDV-SEIA conference, I began to understand the complexities of making solar energy attractive and economically viable for the businesses in the industry, its utility providers, and customers alike. The conference equipped me with an understanding of how change in Virginia’s energy landscape can be made from within the solar energy industry. Like any industry, group thinking, idea sharing and collaboration among businesses are critical ways to strengthen the solar industry and protect it during its infancy. The MDV-SEIA conference served as a platform for those connections to be made, through workshops, panel discussion and inter-business networking.

Solar is the energy of the future, and we can already see the beneficial impacts it has on our communities. I am excited to be a part of an industry that promotes the growth of sustainable business, for a cleaner and brighter world tomorrow.

About Jesse Reist: Jesse is a senior Environmental Sustainability major at Eastern Mennonite University, and has been working with Secure Futures since October 2015. He serves as social media and marketing intern as well as the Virginia Renewable Energy Alliance (VA-REA) network coordinator.

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