Renewable energy refers to electricity or fuels made from sustainable natural resources — sun, wind, water, the heat of the earth and “biomass” (crops, plants and wood from trees). It can also refer to electricity created with such things as recycled steam heat, urban waste and landfill gas.
Virginia law defines renewable energy as power from sunlight, wind, falling water, biomass, energy from waste, municipal solid waste, wave motion, tides and geothermal power (Code of Virginia § 56-576).
Renewables are a modest share of our electricity mix because they are too expensive for most consumers. But they are growing in popularity as costs come down and incentives are offered to help the U.S. accelerate its transition to cleaner energy sources that are domestically produced. Here are the main renewables you should know:
The sun’s heat and light provide an abundant source of energy that can be harnessed in many ways. There are a variety of technologies that have been developed to take advantage of solar energy. The two main ones are: solar roof panels (photovoltaics) that generate power and solar thermal systems used to make heat.
The federal government and Commonwealth are working to expand the use of solar power in many ways. There are many incentives currently available to individuals and businesses seeking to use solar energy.
Click here to learn more about Virginia’s solar power resources.
Wind power is America’s second-fastest growing source of power generation. Turbines, often taller than the length of a football field harness the wind to make electricity using the same principles as aircraft wings.
Virginia does not currently have any utility-scale wind farms in operation. Virginia is working with universities, environmental groups, and other non-profit organizations to explore Virginia’s options for developing its wind resource potential in an environmentally responsible manner.
In Virginia, there is high wind energy potential off the coast. Turbines would likely be constructed in the Atlantic or in the Chesapeake Bay.
Click here to learn more about Virginia’s wind power research and development activities.
Geothermal energy is defined as heat from the Earth. It is a clean, renewable resource that provides energy because of the heat emanating from the interior of the Earth and is essentially limitless.
Geothermal energy can be used for electricity production, for direct use purposes, and for home heating efficiency (through geothermal heat pumps).
Hydropower, or hydroelectric power, is an emissions-free, renewable and reliable energy source created from the kinetic energy of falling water. The energy is then converted into electricity with a turbine. As a source of energy, hydropower excels at preserving the stability and reliability of the electrical grid due to its unique operating characteristics.
Other types of renewable energy and alternate sources used to create electricity include:
- Biomass. Biomass is organic, non-fossil matter, which is available on a renewable or recurring basis. It can be derived from the timber industry, agriculture (including crop and animal waste), and household waste. In Virginia, this resource is often harnessed through the incineration of municipal solid waste or the recovery of biogas from landfills. Biomass can be used to generate electricity with the same technology used by fossil fuel burning power plants. The use of renewable biomass creates additional value in farm, forestry and other industries, reducing waste streams.
- Municipal Solid Waste. Municipal solid waste (MSW) is composed of residential and commercial refuse. It makes up the largest source of waste in industrialized countries. Disposal of MSW is a great concern in many areas where landfill space is becoming scarce. Despite some environmental concerns, incineration of MSW for energy recovery is often seen as an attractive alternative to disposal in a landfill.
- Combined Heat and Power. Also known as cogeneration, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is electricity generated with the steam from industrial plants. CHP can greatly increase a facility’s operational efficiency and decrease energy costs. At the same time, CHP reduces the emission of greenhouse gases, improves air quality and can help meet Virginia’s energy reduction goals. Learn more about Combined Heat and Power Units in Virginia and find incentives for the installation of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable power sources in your home and business.
Besides the tax credits and rebates available, an additional incentive for renewable power is that some consumers will create more electricity than they need. Virginia allows consumers to sell excess power back to the utility, a process called “net energy metering.”
There are also several renewable transportation fuels that are already used in cars today or may be in the future. They are not used to create electricity but are common renewables you may have heard about.
- Landfill Gas. Recovering energy from landfill gas can reduce pollutant emissions in communities around Virginia and improve air quality. The natural degradation of organic matter in a landfill creates gas. This gas is about 50% methane and 50% CO2 and is burned or ‘flared’ so it doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. An alternative to flaring is to use the methane as a fuel source for the production of electricity. The gas can be converted into electricity through the use of a microturbine or fuel cell. It may also be burned for heating purposes. There are a number of projects currently using landfill gas from more than a dozen landfills throughout Virginia. Supplemental fuel and electricity generating efforts are the two most common landfill gas projects in the state. As demands for energy and fuel grow, landfill gas may become a more widely used resource in Virginia.
- Ethanol. Ethanol is fuel that is commonly made from corn but can be made from a variety of crops such as sugarcane, plants, prairie grasses, algae and other bio-based sources. The gasoline you buy contains 10% ethanol. Some vehicles on roads today can run on regular gasoline or a mix of 85% ethanol known as E85. However, most “flex fuel” vehicles run only on gasoline because E85 isn’t widely available.
- Biodiesel. Biodiesel is a clean burning alternative to diesel fuel that is produced from animal fats, vegetable oils, and even algae. It is renewable, domestically produced, and readily available in Virginia. Biodiesel can be used unblended (100% biodiesel, otherwise known as B100), or blended with petroleum diesel as B5 (5% blend of biodiesel with diesel), B10 (10% biodiesel), B20 (20% biodiesel), etc. To find a biodiesel fueling station near you, click here.
Today’s solar energy solutions are highly efficient, powering systems that can heat your water, provide electricity, and even offload your home heating system. Solar panels are one of the most popular renewable energy home improvements available to homeowners today. The panels emit no harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and can save homeowners money off their energy bills in the long-term.
How Solar Panels Work
Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels contain individual cells that convert the photons from sunlight into electrical current. The combined electricity produced by multiple cells within a solar panel forms the total electrical power available from that panel. Several solar panels operating together are generally required to provide the electrical power required for use in your home. Solar panels, as the name suggests, produce electricity from the sun, and so that electricity is not available at night, or may be reduced under cloudy skies. Solar panels can be used with energy storage devices such as batteries that can store the electricity when sunlight is available, and then provide that energy for use later when sunlight is not available. This option may be expensive. With or without battery storage options, solar panels require “inverters” to convert the electricity directly produced by the panels into a different form that can be used in the home; and they also require controllers to ensure electrical safety of the panels and the connected devices in your home.
Things to Consider Before Installing Panels
While building a new home is the best time to design and orient it to take advantage of the sun’s rays, most homeowners do not have that luxury. If you do happen to be installing solar panels in a new home construction project, take some time to review the home’s orientation. The ideal home will let in the winter sun through south-facing windows to reduce heating bills while blocking the heat from the summer sun to reduce cooling bills. Other factors to consider in the likely event you will be installing panels on an existing structure are your solar resources, siting and sizing the system, the type of system you prefer (grid-connected or stand-alone), and electrical safety.
Make sure your home’s roof can support the weight of solar panels, and check to see how much sunlight your roof gets. If your roof is shady due to trees, or if you rent an apartment or home, you may want to hold off on retrofitting your home with solar panels. If your property doesn’t lend itself to a solar system, you can always pursue a shared or community solar program.
Take measures to reduce your home’s energy usage prior to installing solar panels – the amount of solar energy you will need to produce depends on how much energy you use at home. Make sure to do an energy audit and install energy efficient appliances before adding solar panels.
Who to Hire for Installation
Given the complexity and need for proper installation, it’s best to have a professional solar contractor install your system. When researching installers, find qualified and insured professionals that have been certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.
It’s usually best to obtain at least three bids for the solar system installation and make sure the bids are based on the same characteristics and metrics to enable comparison shopping. Bids should clearly state the following information:
- The maximum generating capacity of the system—measured in Watts (W) or kilowatts (kW).
- An estimate of the amount of energy that the system will produce on an annual or monthly basis (measured in kilowatt-hours).
- The total cost of getting the system up and running, including hardware, installation, connection to the grid, permitting, sales tax, and warranty.
System Costs and Financing Solutions
The costs of home solar systems vary depending on how extensive the system is based on your home energy consumption, so the best route for determining the potential costs of a solar system for your home is to consult with an installer or use available solar mapping tools to assess your home’s solar potential. These tools can also provide you with the estimated system size, potential costs and savings, and local contractors. Below are several ways you can finance a solar panel system for your home.
Buying a system
By purchasing a home solar energy system, you are the sole owner of the system. The system will be connected to the grid by your installer, and it will need an interconnection permit from the utility. If your solar energy system generates more power than needed, you can sell excess electricity to the grid. If you need more electricity than the system provides, you will draw energy from the grid to make up for it. This is the best option to take advantage of tax credits and increase the market value of your home.
Leasing a system
If you lease your solar energy system, you pay to lease the system from a third party in order to use the electricity it generates. Solar leases often involve limited upfront investment and fixed monthly payments over a set period of time. Under a leasing arrangement, homeowners typically pay the developer a flat monthly fee for the equipment that is based on the estimated amount of electricity that the system will produce. Note that you may be ineligible for state or federal tax incentives by leasing.
Shared solar programs
Community or shared solar programs are a great alternative if your home does not have adequate roof space. A group of participants pool their purchasing power to buy solar into a solar system at a level that fits their needs and budget. The solar energy system can be on or off-site and may be owned by utilities, a solar developer, non-profit entities, or multiple community members. Consider this if you do not want to be responsible for system maintenance or are ineligible for federal and state tax incentives. You should contact your electric utility service provider to see what community solar options are available.
Power Purchase Agreements (PPA)
In a PPA, consumers host solar energy systems owned by solar companies and purchase back the electricity generated. The host consumer agrees to purchase the power generated by the system at a set price per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced over the life of the system. The purchase price of solar electricity is often lower than the local utility’s retail rate. In this scenario, the developer arranges for the design, permitting, financing, and installation on a consumer’s property at little to no upfront cost.
Utility Connections/Net Metering
Net metering is a system in which solar panels or other renewable energy generators are connected to a public-utility power grid and surplus power is transferred into the grid, allowing customers to offset the cost of power drawn from the utility. When homeowners generate electricity from their solar array, it reduces the amount of energy they purchase from their electric utility, which also lowers monthly electricity bills. If the solar system generates more energy than is consumed, any excess power is sold to the grid and can be deducted from monthly energy bills. Virginia’s current net-metering law covers residential systems up to 20 kW.
As you research whether it’s viable to install solar panels in your home, also look to see if your city or utility offers any rebates, tax credits, or other incentives that could reduce the overall cost of switching to solar energy. Learn more about available financial incentives in your area by going here. The federal government offers a Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit for Solar Water Heating or Photovoltaic Systems, which gives qualifying taxpayers a credit of 30% of qualified expenditures for solar systems that are placed in service by 2019. Visit this page for more information on how you can qualify for this tax credit.
At present, Virginia does not offer state solar tax credits, incentives, or rebates, but offers property tax exemptions for installed solar systems. Property tax exemptions allow businesses and homeowners to exclude the added value of a system from the valuation of their property for taxation purposes. An exemption makes it more economically feasible for taxpayer to install a solar system on a residential or commercial property. Since the Virginia state legislature authorizes the property tax exemptions, be sure to check with an installer to see if your county or town offers such exemptions.
Check to make sure you are in compliance with state and local permitting rules and regulations. According to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, any renewable solar energy facilities with a rated capacity of 1500 megawatts or less are subject to the regulations for the Small Renewable Energy (Solar) Permit by Rule. For additional permits that may vary county by county, check this page.
- Solar Energy Industries Association
- Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory
- American Wind Energy Association
- U.S. Department of Energy
- Energy Saver Guide
- Solar 101
- Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
- Virginia Energy
- North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners