Virginia’s new renewable energy goals can spur job creation, if combined with action from the General Assembly 

October 2, 2019 12:01 am

Workers install solar panels at Huguenot High School in Richmond. (Sun Tribe Solar)

By Devin Welch

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam made an exciting announcement: that Virginia would aim to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. It’s an ambitious — but essential — target, and much of the reporting post-announcement has focused on a major impetus behind this kind of goal setting: climate change and the very real impact it will continue to have on communities throughout the commonwealth. 

Yet there’s another, equally important, reason to celebrate this news: renewable energy goals can drive job growth throughout the commonwealth and allow businesses like ours to continue to create new, family-supporting careers. But that can only happen if our legislators in Richmond are willing to join in the effort.

The impact of renewable energy on Virginia’s economy was made clear in August, when a report from Virginia Advanced Energy Economy found that advanced energy sector employs 101,400 Virginians.

These are our neighbors, and they’re working hard every day: installing systems capable of generating solar or wind power; manufacturing and repairing hybrid and electric vehicles; and working to make homes, offices, and industrial buildings more energy efficient. The best news of all is that these jobs are available in every county and corner of the commonwealth – from Lee to Loudon and everywhere in between. And yes, advanced energy is good for the environment. But it doesn’t require consumers and business owners to pay a premium for sustainability, as advanced energy is often more affordable than traditional energy sources such as coal or natural gas.

These companies already employ more people than every hospital in the commonwealth combined. But the truth is that statistics don’t really tell the whole story, because jobs aren’t really about numbers at all — they’re about people.

At our Charlottesville-based company, Sun Tribe Solar, we’ve created over 75 full-time, family-supporting jobs with full benefits, for entry-level solar installers to construction managers, electricians and engineers. 

These are the talented colleagues I have a chance to work with every day as we try to change the way Virginia gets its energy.

Together, we’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit. We’ve launched an innovative training program with the City of Charlottesville (called Go Solar!) to ensure that workers from traditionally disadvantaged communities have access to those good-paying jobs. We’ve partnered with local governments, schools and private companies to install solar systems that save them money by lowering their energy bills. And we’ve also been able to reach out to communities who have traditionally relied on older energy sources: We’ll soon be breaking ground on the first solar array to sit on abandoned coal mine land in Virginia’s history – an on-site system which will power a leading data processing center in Wise County.  

We’re far from the only ones. Virginia is home to world-class clean energy companies like Apex Clean Energy, who are building on-shore wind projects for companies like Starbucks, Facebook and Ikea. At Lumin, they’ve developed a new technology which allows homeowners to monitor and better control their energy use. At East Point energy, they’re creating jobs by leading the way on renewable energy storage – putting together a team with experience on $1.5 billion worth of projects throughout the country. And there are countless others.

As the demand for renewable energy grows, we need policies in place that will allow us all to compete on a level playing field. Because the plain fact is that right now, we’re already facing unnecessary obstacles which will keep us from continuing to grow, create even more jobs and change the lives of more of our neighbors.

If lawmakers in Richmond are serious about building an economy that works for all Virginians, then they should support common-sense advanced energy policies. That starts with expanding the successful Power Purchase Agreement Pilot program so that every non-profit, school and faith community has access to affordable solar energy; and supporting a clean energy standard, which will help move Virginia towards increased energy efficiency and save people money.

That won’t solve every challenge for this rapidly growing, job-creating industry, but it’s a start. And if politicians want to create jobs and build on last week’s announcement, advanced energy is a bi-partisan opportunity to deliver for all Virginians.

Devin Welch is the chief strategy officer at Sun Tribe Solar in Charlottesville.

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