Like everyone else, I spent the last few days enjoying the beautiful weather we’ve experienced here in Pulaski. Pulling out shorts for long afternoon walks in the sun. Rolling down the windows in the car as I cruise through town. Showing my son the blooming flowers around our yard. And wondering how to harness the 50 million kilowatt-hours of free energy our town’s bathing in.
OK, maybe I was alone on that last one. The abundance of solar energy available to us has captured my imagination since twelve year-old me first heard about it on Bill Nye, the Science Guy. My friend next door and I even planned a solar-powered tree fort, where we could play Super Mario 3 without our siblings or parents interrupting the fun. These days, I spend more time noticing the shade-less roofs around town that could fit sizeable solar arrays.
If our town meets Appalachian Power’s averages, each of our 4,173 households uses 1140 kWh of electricity per month. When APCo has billed me for using that much power, it amounts to a $130 fee. If they charge consistently, that means each home here is spending $1,560 a year on electricity costs. For some of us, that’s just another drop in our budget. But for others, it can amount to 10-13% of an annual income, if not more. And that can break the bank for families, leaving them to seek aid from local non-profits to make ends meet.
While the “energy race” I referred to in my last piece may have taken some time to speed up, the coming decades will see it take off. Even the few coalfield counties of Virginia are joining the race, with a Solar Fair in Wise this coming week to highlight the many community benefits of clean energy. Renewable energy sources are reaching the same expense levels as coal and natural gas. Solar technology is getting cheaper to manufacture and install, with an expanding job market. And many of us would love to take advantage clean, green, or relatively free energy. How to do it is a tougher question.
Pulaski residents could go to 100% solar with a 40 megawatt solar plant. It would certainly bring jobs to our area and cut the electric bills of everyone in town. That sort of endeavor would require 450 acres (.7 square miles) of space and around $40,000,000 of investment in materials, installation, and labor. This approach is more a pipe dream unless APCo, or a certain local investor, thought it would be good for their image to supply our town with sustainable energy. Then again, Duke Energy did just that for the small town of Elm City, NC this past year.
Another more practical model is a solar co-op, like Solarize Montgomery, where neighbors pool resources to buy solar panels at wholesale prices. Many times, these neighbors have the panels installed directly on their homes, though other states allow commercial buildings to lease roof space for solar co-ops. Either way, the people involved own the panels, and receive tax credits for going renewable. Through a process called “net-metering”, they also receive discounts from their utility company for the energy they produce that goes back on the grid.
If Pulaski residents could rent local roof top space, this map shows our potential for solar on flat top and slanted industrial, commercial, and public buildings. The full potential is approximately 40 MW (estimate based on the Unirac design tool with generic residential panels).
Another approach is a community driven effort, like the one that has sparked Shepherdstown, WV to think about clean and free energy. Solar Holler, a local start-up, helps both contract and finance sustainable energy in their town of 1,700. One of their earliest successes was the 60-panel array on the roof of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. The project could have cost the church $55,000, but creative crowd-sourced funds kept it to an expense of $1. Solar Holler founder Dan Conant and church member Than Hitt worked with church members to finance the project by installing net-metering shut-off switches to their electric water heaters. Each household pledged the $100 annual rebate they received for energy savings to the church’s solar array. Solar Holler partnered with Coalfield Development to hire and train local workers to complete the installation. Now that it is installed, the panels provide for 50% of the church’s power, producing 101 kWh on April 8th alone. By saving on those power bills, the church is better positioned to offer more to their community through service and outreach.
As a model, Pulaski could take a few pages out of the Shepherdstown book, with plenty of resources at hand. NRCC is currently teaching students how to estimate, contract, and install solar arrays. We have several solar contractors already up and running in Blacksburg, so local employees and businesses would be supported by this kind of project. A number of our churches house south-facing roofs (First Christian, First and Memorial Baptist, St Edward’s Catholic, and Randolph Avenue United Methodist), while the YMCA and the public library both have expansive flat roofs. They would certainly benefit from the savings on their energy bills and offer better services to our community. There may even be ways to tie such projects into the low-income housing around town, or the proposed consolidated middle school. And the example could set the ball rolling for local businesses to invest in more robust renewable electricity options. Of course, there remain struggles, not insignificantly our state’s and our utility providers’ cool-toward-renewables legal codes and corporate attitudes. And for the many home renters in Pulaski, it is uncertain whether landlords would pass on energy savings from any of these models. But if a town in the West Virginia panhandle can find a way, why couldn’t we? It seems that all it would take is the will to help our neighbors, the desire to save a little money, and a sunny day or two to shine some new energy into Pulaski.