How Virginians can advocate for solar, an interview with Ivy Main

By Brandon Walton on October 2, 2015

Writer, lawyer, and advocate Ivy Main is a leading voice on renewable energy in Virgina. Her blog, Power for the People VA, is essential reading for any Virginian interested in energy policy. Recently we spoke with her about the state of renewable energy in the commonwealth and what we can do to make it better.

Your Power for the People blog is a go to source for solar policy information in Virginia, What inspired you to launch it?

It can be really hard for ordinary people to get information about energy in Virginia. The Washington Post largely ignores Virginia, and the papers that do serve the state either weren’t covering issues I considered important, or covered them mainly from the utility perspective, with a sound bite from an environmental advocate often providing the only attempt at balance.

The Virginia papers have gotten better in the past couple of years, but I’m still baffled that they don’t pick up on news items I think should be front page—like Dominion’s cost estimates for a new nuclear reactor at North Anna. Why aren’t we having a public debate about a $19 billion plant that will produce electricity at more than three times the cost of new wind or solar? The papers will cover it when Dominion gets the operating license, but by then the utility will have spent more than a billion dollars of our money.

The other reason for the blog was to have room to explain policy issues in depth. If you write a letter to the editor or an op-ed, you are constrained by a tight word limit. That makes it hard to show how different policies fit together.

Can you tell us about your background and what inspires your interest in solar in the Commonwealth?

I went to law school because of my commitment to protecting the environment. These days I’m focused on the central crisis of our time: climate disruption and the threat it poses to all the species we care about—including us!

But my passion for solar goes way back to the seventies, when the idea of powering our economy with the energy of the sun barely went beyond sci-fi. Now steady technological advances have brought us to the tipping point: solar will keep getting cheaper, while fossil fuels keep getting more expensive.

That makes it imperative that we stop throwing money down the rat-hole of fossil fuel infrastructure. If Virginia is going to remain a state where people want to live and businesses want to locate, our power grid has to say hello to the 21st century.

What sort of growth have you seen in awareness around solar policy issues in Virginia? What can interested people do to learn more?

The solarize movement that VA SUN kicked off has done a lot to raise awareness at the local level. So have the workshops and open houses run by industry and advocates. On the state level, about four years ago the Sierra Club started holding an annual clean energy lobby day to bring industry members to Richmond to educate legislators. That seems to be bearing fruit, as we’re seeing much more positive attitudes from legislators who were formerly skeptical about solar. And the solar industry now understands the value of lobbying and education; they’ve largely taken over the running of the lobby day, and they’ve begun working closely with environmentalists and solar advocates on public education and policy initiatives.

What do you see as the key policies or components to growing solar in Virginia?

We need to remove the barriers that keep customer-sited solar energy from taking off. It makes no sense to restrict the private market. Every time someone installs a solar facility on their own property, they’re benefiting the public by reducing our use of fossil fuels, by adding to our supply of home-grown clean energy, by supporting local jobs, and by helping to build the framework of a more secure and reliable power grid. And they are doing it on their own dime. From a public policy point of view, helping people spend their own money on solar is a no-brainer.

We also have to encourage investments in utility-scale solar, whether developed by the utilities themselves or by the private market, which is often more cost-effective. We need it all.

If somebody is interested in getting involved in solar policy in Virginia, what can they do?

There are lots of ways to get involved. Writing or, better yet, visiting your state legislators tops the list; when constituents demand solutions, legislators listen.

If you don’t feel you know enough yet to do that, attend a workshop or public information session. The Virginia Conservation Network, which is an umbrella group that includes most of the conservation organizations, has its annual legislative workshop in Richmond on December 5. It’s a great place to learn. The solar industry, through its trade association MDV-SEIA, has also partnered with environmental groups to hold public education sessions around the state.

If you are already active in your own community through a garden club, Rotary, a political committee, League of Women Voters, local chamber of commerce or anything else where you think other members might be interested in learning more about solar, consider inviting a speaker from MDV-SEIA or an environmental group like the Sierra Club.

The more people learn about solar, the more they like it; and then they become advocates like us!