Regional Roadmap for Solar in Virginia’s Coalfields

It’s a juxtaposition between the old and new: an effort to expand solar energy use in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. Leading this work is the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, a group of nonprofit and community action agencies, colleges, state agencies, planning district commissions, and other interested citizens and businesses seeking to develop a renewable energy industry cluster in the seven coalfield counties of Southwest Virginia.

These seven counties are home to eight communities designated by SolSmart in July 2019: Wise County achieved SolSmart Silver designation; and Dickenson County, Lee County, City of Norton, Russell County, Scott County, Town of St. Paul, and Tazewell County achieved Bronze designation.

The Solar Workgroup was also recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office’s “Solar in Your Community Challenge,” a program launched in 2016 as a way to improve energy affordability and expand solar access to low- and moderate-income (LMI) households. The workgroup was one of 12 teams recognized for their innovations in program design and ability to reach new markets.


The Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia was co-convened by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise – Office of Economic Development & Engagement, People Inc.,  and Appalachian Voices. The group is a collaboration of nonprofit and community action agencies; colleges; planning district commissions; the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; and other interested citizens and businesses.

Both People Inc. and Appalachian Voices are grassroots nonprofit groups. People Inc. began as a small community-based organization in 1964 and has grown into one of Virginia’s largest and most successful community action agencies. One of the missions of Appalachian Voices is to encourage investments in solar energy and help establish a renewable energy sector that, “builds community wealth and gives the region a competitive advantage in attracting new business interests.”

In its 2015 strategic plan for Virginia, the Appalachian Regional Commission called for “accelerating the development and use of renewable energy sources” and promoting “green and renewable energy options.” The Solar Workgroup formed soon after and developed the Solar Roadmap of Southwest Virginia, a report that envisions “a multi-faceted strategy for establishing a vibrant solar energy hub in the coalfields of far Southwest Virginia,” including several solar projects in the next few years ranging from residential to large-scale commercial.


The Solar Workgroup’s initial assessment found that capturing roughly 32.4% of the electricity demand in the region through local solar installations would create more than 650 jobs—a major boon for Southwest Virginia communities and catalyst for establishing a renewable energy industry. In its first year, the workgroup actively worked to generate capital for a 350-kilowatt rooftop solar system at Ridgeview High School in Dickenson County and 80 kilowatts of rooftop solar at Norton Green, a 40-unit low-income housing complex.

These projects will yield an estimated $240,000-$535,000 in energy savings over a 25-year period for low- to moderate-income residents, as well as a rural school district that has faced declining revenues. The installations will serve as “marquee” projects for the larger goal of developing and implementing a renewable energy strategy and workforce development program for Southwest Virginia. In all, the team plans to install 34 MW across residential, commercial, and utility-scale setups by late 2020 in the seven Southwest Virginia counties.


Communities in Southwest Virginia worked together to win SolSmart designation. “This model of regional collaboration proves Southwest Virginia is open to improving local processes in order to attract business prospects for solar companies,” said Becki Joyce, program director for Community and Economic Development University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

In their work to become designated, the Southwest Virginia communities received in-depth technical assistance from SolSmart advisor Gary Hearl, president and managing member of Elevation Energy & Communications LLC, a commercial renewable energy development, financing, and advisory firm.

Upon their designation, Marc Ott, executive director of ICMA said, “These communities in Southwest Virginia are prime examples of how local government can make it easier to access solar energy through streamlining regulations and implementing solar initiatives. Congratulations to these communities on achieving SolSmart designation and for their actions in empowering residents and business to go solar.”

This Case Study was written by the National Civic League