Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments

09/21/2023 | News release | Distributed by Public on 09/21/2023 10:29

Region's leaders set sights on solar, renewable energy to advance climate goals

The region wants to tap into the great potential of solar energy to meet its climate goals. At its September meeting, area officials on the COG Board of Directors were briefed on three initiatives within the region to expand the use of solar energy. Representatives from the Montgomery County Green Bank (MCGB), DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU), and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) shared details of their respective projects and discussed opportunities and challenges related to increased adoption of solar energy in the region.

Gabe Klein, executive director for the U.S. Joint Office of Energy and Transportation and a former director of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation also joined the meeting to outline his office's vision and programs to advance work on electrification and current opportunities to collaborate on climate action.

The 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan establishes a regional approach

The Metropolitan Washington 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan, adopted by the COG Board in 2020 and included in its Region United planning framework, established priority actions for area governments and partners to meet the region's climate and energy goals, including a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. A COG analysis last year showed the region achieved its goal to reduce GHG emissions by at least 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Despite progress, substantial action is needed to achieve the 2030 goal's deeper reduction in GHGs. Officials have identified widespread adoption of solar and other renewable energy sources as a key strategy to achieve these reductions. In 2019, the region had 44,000 renewable energy systems. The COG action plan states that the region would need to deploy more than 200,000 additional solar systems over 10 years in order to meet the 2030 goal.

"The time to go big on this is now. There's substantial federal funding available in the next year to assist in deploying clean energy solutions across the entire region," said COG Climate, Energy, and Air Programs Director Jeff King in remarks to the board.

One region, one climate goal, multiple approaches

Clean energy initiatives already underway in the region take many different forms and address a diverse set of priority issues, such as ensuring solar energy is accessible and convenient to residents across all income levels.

The Montgomery County Green Bank, a nonprofit chartered by Montgomery County and funded through a municipal energy tax, leverages private funds to bring clean energy projects to historically underserved communities.

Rokas Beresniovas, Director of Commercial Business & Investments for the MCGB shared details regarding the organization's recently completed Seneca Village Apartments project in Gaithersburg, MD. The property includes 684 units, with 90 percent of those available as affordable, multi-family housing.

Made possible by the MCGB's innovative financing approach, this affordable housing development was built with a 2.18-megawatt solar rooftop array, EV charging infrastructure, and a high efficiency reflective roof.

Approaching the region's climate goals through an equity lens has shown to be an effective strategy for increased adoption of renewable energy. Officials noted it brings greater awareness to existing barriers and highlights opportunities to reach people who have not previously thought of solar energy or access to low-carbon mobility as a viable option for their needs.

"You need publicly available EV charging infrastructure. A lot of early adopters had single family homes, driveways, and could afford to have that and chargers. As we're mainstreaming this technology and vehicles are coming down in price point, we need to think much more about people in multi-unit dwellings," explained Klein.

The DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) is also focused on opportunities to bring solar and renewable energy to lower-income residents.

In his presentation to the COG Board, James Clarke, portfolio manager for DCSEU's Solar for All Program, shared that Solar for All aims to provide solar energy to 100,000 income-qualified DC residents by 2032. The program utilizes community solar in addition to rooftop installations to accommodate the needs of residents. The program is expected to reach over 200 households in 2023, nearly doubling its impact from the year before. Beneficiaries of the program could see as much as $500 in energy savings each year.

Co-locating solar with affordable housing is a strategy that has seen momentum throughout the region.

"In Loudoun, we're trying to put solar on all our attainable, affordable homes. All our new buildings, we're trying to put solar on them because we know it will lower costs for those families later on. It's not just for the environmental benefits, but for people's finances," said COG Board Member and Loudoun County Board Chair Phyllis Randall.

Robert Lazaro, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), shared how the NVRC's Solarize NoVA program has served as a "one stop shop" for solar consumers. The program uses bulk purchasing to generate and pass on savings to both residential and commercial consumers. The cost of solar installations through the Solarize NoVA program was more than 11 percent below the statewide average.

NVRC partners with local governments to share information about the program with residents. As part of Solarize NoVA, NVRC created a unique mapping tool for residents to get on-demand information about the potential energy cost savings and environmental benefit of installing solar on their buildings. Nearly 10 percent of solar arrays completed in Northern Virginia between 2014 and 2021 were through the Solarize NoVA program.

Regional priorities for solar aligned with federal initiatives

As metropolitan Washington leaders seek to make clean energy widely accessible to residents, the federal government is making resources available to aid localities in their efforts.

Klein shared information on several funding opportunities available to localities through the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) to increase the use of renewable energy including: the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Formula Program, the Charging and Fueling Infrastructure (CFI) Grant Program, the Low-No Emissions Grants Program for Transit, and the Clean School Bus Program. More information on these grants and other funding opportunities available through the IIJA can be found on COG's IIJA and IRA databases.

In addition to making EV charging broadly available throughout the region, aging EV charging infrastructure must also be updated and maintained.

"There are some big challenges. We've got a bit of a reliability issue with the existing EV infrastructure in this country. It was built over a 15-year period," said Klein, explaining that new technology can better address existing concerns such as usability, power load, accessibility, security, and equity of EV charging sites.

As the EV charging network is expanded in the region, the accessibility and operability of the systems must also be ensured for EV adoption to flourish. To meet this need, the federal government just announced a funding opportunity to focus on ensuring the maintenance and reliability of the system. The energy systems supporting electrification initiatives must also be decarbonized to meet our climate goals.

Coordination among localities and other stakeholders will be essential to accelerating deployment of energy solutions such as solar and renewable energy to meet the infrastructure needs of the community. Board members noted how shared regional solar targets, commitments to deploy solar on government properties and schools, and coordinated solar procurement could also spur progress towards meeting our region's climate goals.

"The solar piece has been key in opening up relationships within the community, both in educating the public and with developers, and talking to them about sustainability," said COG Board Member and Prince William County Supervisor Andrea Bailey.

COG's Climate, Energy, and Environment Policy Committee (CEEPC) will further evaluate strategies to increase the use of solar energy in the region and report back to the COG Board on actions the board can take to accelerate action on solar energy in the region.