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County explores funding clean energy with ‘green bank,’ potentially a first in Virginia

Solar panels (via Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr)

(Updated at 11:25 a.m. on 8/5/2022) Fairfax County is exploring being the first Virginia locality to create a “green bank” as a way to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors’ environmental committee last week, county staff said a green bank can help spur investments in clean energy.

Essentially, a green bank is a publicly-funded financial institution that helps fund, develop, and support clean energy technologies for both residential and commercial entities.

“A green bank can act as a program sponsor, a trusted advisor, and a clearing house of information for residents and the private sector,” John Morrill, from the county’s office of environmental and energy coordination, said in his presentation to the committee.

The board asked staff to look into the idea of a green bank two years ago, ultimately authorizing $300,000 for a feasibility study. The General Assembly also passed legislation last year letting localities set up their own.

So far, the feasibility study found that a green bank could lead to $650 million of investments in just the first five years. Those investments would focus on residential energy efficiency measures, rooftop solar panels for both county homes and businesses, and shifting commercial car fleets to electric.

“The role of a green bank would be to encourage and facilitate those investments through targeted programs, direct incentives, and partnerships with private financial institutions and service providers,” Morrill said.

A few committee members questioned whether the county’s green bank would be “crowding out” private investment that would have happened regardless.

“That’s probably the crux of the issue and the most challenging operational,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “It doesn’t do us any good to fund a project that would have happened otherwise.”

According to staff, a county-backed green bank could help homeowners better afford improvements like solar panels or help make decisions about what’s right for them. For example, the county could provide “cash incentives” for installing rooftop solar panels in exchange for the county getting the renewable energy credits.

Morrill also noted that a green bank could help make improvements for low and moderate-income households that could benefit from the potential savings.

Staff recommended the county create a green bank as a non-profit 501(c)(3) with a board that could include county officials.

While no Virginia locality has a green bank yet, it is becoming a trend nationwide that was actually kicked off by nearby Montgomery County, which is among the first localities in the country to set up a county-backed green bank. D.C. also has a green bank.

(Correction: This article previously stated that Montgomery County was the first U.S. locality to create a green bank. While the county has said that, it was preceded in 2010 by New York City, which also claims to have the nation’s first local green bank, and St. Lucie County in Florida, which formed the nonprofit Solar and Energy Loan Fund.)

Staff recommended that the board follow Montgomery County’s lead in committing “a mid-range investment” for a green bank with initial funding ranging from $3 million to $15 million.

Chairman Jeff McKay suggested the county could partner with other local jurisdictions, so that Fairfax County doesn’t have to bear the sole financial brunt for an initiative that would benefit the region.

Committee members expressed overall support for the green bank proposal and asked staff to complete the study.

Staff will complete a draft ordinance and provide an official funding recommendation in the fall. The matter could come before the environmental committee for a vote in October with a Board of Supervisors public hearing scheduled for late this year or early 2023.

“If we initiate this, we have a chance to start this up in a way that not only benefits Fairfax County residents but also other counties around us to hopefully move more quickly adoption of ways to save energy and optimize our reduction in greenhouse gases,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

Photo via Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr

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