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April 03, 2014

New Business Model for Non-Profits Brings Solar Into Hostile Territory

UC Matt R

Fourteen solar panels crown the entrance to the First Congregational Christian United Church of Christ in Chesterfield, Virginia. The small array generates 10 percent or so of the church's electricity, but the project is notable for a different reason: it was the first solar system installed anywhere under a new kind of contract called a Customer Self-Generation Agreement. The agreement allowed the church go solar with no money down, and without increasing its electricity costs.
 
The Customer Self-Generation Agreement (CSGA) is the brainchild of Tony Smith, founder and CEO of Secure Futures LLC, a solar developer based in Staunton, Virginia. Under its agreement with the church, Secure Futures owns the solar panels and reaps the federal tax benefits that make solar affordable. The church gets the electrical output of the system over the twenty-year life of the contract. Neither a lease (which would bar the church from getting the tax benefits) nor a third-party power purchase agreement (which the incumbent utility would have opposed), the CSGA occupies a financing niche all of its own.
 
For Secure Futures, the CSGA was born of necessity. In 2011, the company was blocked from completing a solar array at Washington and Lee University when Dominion Virginia Power sent "cease and desist" letters claiming the parties' use of a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA) violated the utility's monopoly on the sale of electricity. Although convinced it had the law on its side, Secure Futures backed down in the face of expensive litigation. The solar installation was only completed by turning the PPA into a lease and losing some of the tax benefits.  
 

Secure Futures had been building a place for itself in the nonprofit world, appealing especially to colleges and universities that want solar power as part of their sustainability goals. The company's 104-kW solar array at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, completed in 2010, was the first PPA in Virginia and, at the time, the largest solar array in the state. But that project was not in Dominion's territory.
 
For a state like Virginia with few policies to support solar, accessing the federal tax credits is critical to financing a solar project. Tax-exempt entities like municipalities, schools, and churches are a natural customer base for solar, but because they cannot use the federal tax credits themselves, they must partner with a tax-paying company that can own the project. Third-party PPAs have been the answer in states that allow them. PPAs also frequently offer a no-money-down option, which has proven a huge market driver in recent years for homes and businesses as well as non-profits.
 
But after the Washington and Lee experience demonstrated both Dominion's hostility to PPAs and its willingness to use its legal firepower, Tony Smith decided to seek another way through the legal thicket. Working with regulatory lawyer Eric Hurlocker and tax specialists at Hunton and Williams, Secure Futures developed an innovative contract model that could provide the tax benefits of a PPA without running afoul of utility monopoly claims. CSGAs are contracts for solar services but, crucially, don't involve the sale of electricity.
 
Although Dominion Power eventually relented enough to cooperate on a bill passed in 2013 that allows a small number of PPAs within its territory on a "pilot project" basis, Secure Futures has continued to use the CSGA model in subsequent projects because it offers features that a standard PPA does not.
 
Perhaps more importantly, neither Dominion nor any other utility has signaled opposition to CSGAs. Suddenly, Secure Futures' niche looks huge. The ability to use CSGAs wherever PPAs would make financial sense opens up new opportunities among non-profits not just in Virginia, but in all of the 28 states where PPAs are currently either illegal or of uncertain status. As Smith notes, no state bars customers from generating electricity for their own use.
 
While Smith is eager to see his company grow, he says his larger goal has always been to open the floodgates for solar projects across the country where they are held back now only by outdated laws and flawed policies. He hopes to license the CSGA approach, ideally to a non-profit that could work with developers across the South to make this contract model widely available.
 
Virginia has always been a hard place to do business for solar companies, so much so that Smith refers to it as a "dark state." Knocking down the PPA barrier won't bring the sunshine in all by itself, but it does create an opening.

-- Ivy Main, Sierra Club Virginia

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