Virginia logo

NORTON — Local economic development advocates and a private solar power installation company are looking for a sunny side to the region’s energy and job markets.

Representatives of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia joined with Staunton, Virginia-based solar power installation company Secure Futures on Wednesday to announce a two-pronged plan to develop a series of commercial, residential and governmental solar projects across Southwest Virginia and to boost career education for students wanting to learn how to install and maintain solar power systems.

Tony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures, said during Wednesday’s virtual press conference that his company’s role in the partnership’s three-year plan will cover both practical construction of a series of demonstration solar projects and helping the region’s three main electric utilities align their customer policies with Virginia’s Clean Economy Act.

Smith said that working with Appalachian Power, Powell Valley Electric Cooperative and Kentucky Utilities’ Old Dominion Power to align their policies with allowing customers to use solar power along with utility power is key to broadening residential and commercial solar power usage in Southwest Virginia.

Secure Futures will work with Big Stone Gap-based Lonesome Pine Solar LLC to identify and build 10 “ambassador” projects to equip government, commercial and multi-family buildings and schools with solar power installations. Smith said those projects would serve as educational demonstrators on how solar power can reduce utility power consumption and save money.

Nick Polier with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy said that DMME’s own demonstration project opened last year on the roof of its Big Stone Gap headquarters and generates 140 kilowatts of power, or just over half of the building’s electric needs.

Smith said the partnership’s goal is to have projects generating a total of 10 megawatts, or a capacity approaching a significant utility power demand. He said those projects also could create 15 jobs for people with technical skills in solar power as well as marketing, entrepreneurial and small business development areas.

Secure Futures will also provide $100,000 in grant money: $50,000 for a coordinator and for startup money for Lonesome Pine Solar, and $50,000 to Mountain Empire Community College for faculty mentoring and student internships. Much of the project work would be handled by Maryland firm Gott Electric, Smith said.

MECC President Kristen Westover said training in solar power technology fits into the college’s existing energy technology programs and can help many students work locally upon graduation. Many of MECC’s technology students choose electrical work or HVAC installation as a career track, and increasing solar power demand in the region offers a chance for more local work in a good-paying field.

MECC graduate and electrician Miles Smith said that getting work as an electrician often means working away from home for extended periods, and creating a market for solar installations in Southwest Virginia could mean more local jobs.

“It’s something we need in our area, our backyard,” Smith said.

Lonesome Pine Solar President Glen Skinner said his firm can help show students that solar power can be a solid career path.

Nonprofits, businesses and local governments interested in installing solar can sign up for an initial consultation, register for an interested building owner webinar on Sept. 30, and find more information at swvasolar.org/securing-solar.

Anyone interested in potential training opportunities with Mountain Empire Community College and Lonesome Pine Solar can sign up for future announcements at the same link.