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Students Working Towards a Brighter Future

March 23, 2020

Meet our three student interns who are already rising stars in solar

Successfully advocating for solar at one of the largest school districts in the country. Designing a solar-powered light show attended by 14,000 people. Creating an interactive website that estimates the solar potential of schools across the country. These are just a few personal achievements of Generation180’s three distinguished solar research interns.  

Lindsay Asmussen, Kahaan Gandhi, and Adam O’Neill are high school and college students who have been contributing to the Solar For All Schools campaign this semester by collecting and analyzing national data about solar adoption by U.S. K-12 schools for Generation180’s 2022 Brighter Future report coming out this fall. These research internships are part of Generation180’s new collaboration with FedEx to help scale solar adoption at schools nationwide.

Read on to learn more about their early experiences with solar and what inspired their interest in clean energy.

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Kahaan Gandhi

Kahaan Gandhi is only a senior in high school, but he has already developed his own solar analysis that estimates and ranks the nation’s K-12 schools by solar potential and published it on the website SchoolsForSolar.org. He did all of this as a side project outside of school.

As a lifelong vegetarian who cares about animals, Kahaan Gandhi felt a natural pull toward environmental issues. At Menlo High School, he joined the climate coalition environmental club. “I had a great biology teacher that did a lot of environmental projects that inspired me,” he said.

“After attending an elementary, middle, and high school that were all solar-powered, solar just felt familiar to me. It felt like something I could make an impact in.” — Kahaan Gandhi

While quarantined during the pandemic last year, Kahaan felt he needed to do something important with his extra free time. He started researching solar on schools and came across publicly available solar data from the Global Solar Atlas, which he initially used to inform his personal research project. After coming across Generation180’s Brighter Future report during his online research, Kahaan reached out to Solar For All Schools Director, Tish Tablan to learn more.

According to Kahaan, “Generation180’s research shows where solar currently resides on schools, and my project shows where solar should be on schools, but isn’t.” He wanted to add context to Generation180’s data on how much solar is installed at schools and show how far we have left to go. Kahaan developed his own methodology to estimate and rank the solar potential of all of the nation’s K-12 schools. He made his research available on a new website SchoolsForSolar.org, where viewers can look up the solar potential of an individual school and find the top ten schools in each state for solar potential. He hopes the research will encourage schools and local governments to consider the benefits of solar.  His work is already catching the attention of his community and was featured in a recent profile piece by his local newspaper.

After he published his research project, Generation180 invited Kahaan to apply for a summer internship with the organization and continue researching solar adoption by schools.  “I’ve loved the welcoming atmosphere of Generation180. I’m working alongside people with much more experience in the field. I’ve learned so much about data searching and validation,” he said.

Kahaan will be attending Harverford College in Pennsylvania in the fall, but he isn’t sure yet what he wants to study next year. Kahaan said, “I know I want to do something that I can apply to the environmental field. I’m planning to sample a variety of courses and future out what resonates with me.”

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Lindsay Asmussen

Lindsay Asmussen is currently a junior at the University of Virginia, where she is studying global environments and sustainability and foreign affairs.  “I think the policy behind renewable energy is really interesting,” she said. 

Lindsay Asmussen has always been interested in STEM and the environment. “I grew up next to Frying Pan Farm Park in Reston, Virginia surrounded by woods. Living in and being so connected to nature in my youth has influenced everything about me,” she said. 

As a junior at South Lakes High School, Lindsay joined Solar on the Schools–a student-led group working with the Sierra Club to help greenlight solar on Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), the 11th largest district in the country.  The student group successfully petitioned the FCPS school board to have all district schools assessed for their solar potential. In December 2019, the county government committed to adding solar to 113 municipal buildings, including 87 schools, as a result of years of student advocacy. This commitment could potentially yield over $60 million in electricity cost avoidance over the terms of the contracts.

Despite this win, the student advocates had more work to do to remove legal hurdles that would prevent the district from being able to access the funding it needed to go solar. So Lindsay and her fellow students met with their state delegate, attended hearings at the Virginia Senate, and urged legislators to pass the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) in early 2020. Lindsay spoke up for a bill that removed the cost barriers for her district and cleared the way for communities across the state to be able to install solar with no upfront costs. Lindsay is looking forward to seeing the first of these solar projects completed in her community.   

Lindsay said, “I was incredibly excited to start working for Generation180 so that I could experience the solar industry through the lens of a non-profit company. I had previous work in the federal government at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which allowed me to see all the levels of government that must be involved in order to get anything done. I wanted to have a different experience in the solar industry…outside of the government. I hope that working closely with such a passionate staff will allow me to find my place in the solar industry, wherever it may be.”

“I’m still deciding what I want to do in the future, but I know I want to work in the energy sector in some way. It’s really important to me to be influencing change.” — Lindsay Asmussen

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Adam O’Neill

Adam O’Neill grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia in the Tidewater region, an area surrounded by water. “I’ve lived my life between two rivers,” he says. As sea levels rise, more of the region will be underwater, and that has influenced how Adam sees the world. 

Adam is a senior studying civil engineering at UVA, where he is currently president of the Charlottesville Solar Club. Last year, Adam took on a challenge that combined his passions for both clean energy  and engineering. The club decided to design a solar array to power UVA’s “Lighting of the Lawn” ceremony, an annual 20-minute light show that was started to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. “It’s a big symbol of hope for the community,” said Adam. 

The club met weekly with professional solar installers to learn how to create the solar array. “We had to learn to build the entire thing ourselves, which included many practice runs. It took a long time to get the exact voltage right on the battery, and we spent hours re-configuring it. Finally, the night before the light show, we were able to get it right.  We worked with the UVA facilities management department to install it on the Rotunda… I was holding my breath the whole time. It was euphoric to see it work with no hiccups,” he said. The first solar-powered light show at UVA was enjoyed by a crowd of 14,000 attendees from the university and greater Charlottesville community. 

Through the solar club, he has also been working with a local teacher to educate students about the benefits of solar. During the pandemic, he led a virtual presentation to middle schoolers about the threat of climate change and the benefits of clean energy.

“I think I’ll get out what I put into this internship with Generation180. I believe the more I apply myself, the more I will learn. I hope to gain a deeper sense of responsibility and respect for the people behind the clean energy movement. As an engineer, it’s easy to put my head down and worry about numbers. But to see the stories of the real lives that solar affects is humbling and exciting,” said Adam.

Last summer, Adam worked on the sales team for a residential solar company, using his knowledge of solar to knock on doors and explain the benefits of rooftop solar to homeowners in Virginia. After graduation, Adam has a job lined up at a civil engineering consulting firm where he will focus on utility-scale solar planning.

“It feels like climate change is a responsibility of my generation. I want to pursue a career in clean energy and sustainable development that will enable me to build and improve things.” — Adam O’Neill

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Fast Charging: The Final Piece Of The Charging Puzzle

March 19, 2020

A version of this post by Mal Skowron was first published on the blog of Electrify Your Ride VA partner Green Energy Consumer Alliance. This is part 3 in a series of posts covering electric car charging. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

Most drivers have probably had at least one experience in which they asked themselves, “Am I going to run out of gas?” Range anxiety, or the fear a car will run out of fuel before it reaches its destination, is not unique to electric cars. It is, however, a commonly-cited reason that drivers use to justify driving gasoline-powered cars when their electric counterparts are cheaper to own, better for the environment, and more fun to drive.

Electric car owners consistently report the adjustment to charging is easier than expected and feelings of range anxiety dissipate quickly. Instead of making a detour to the gas station, drivers learn to plug in at their homes, workplaces, or parking lots. Level I and Level II charging is fast enough to meet the demands of these everyday trips.

But still, sometimes people will need to drive over a couple hundred miles in a day. As more people adopt electric cars, DC fast charging provides an element of convenience and security that can help displace the purchase of gasoline-powered cars. But how exactly does it work, how good is it now, and how much better can we expect it to be?

How DC Fast Charging Works

Unlike Level I and Level II charging stations, DC fast chargers are only available for public use (in other words: you cannot install one in your home) because of their higher voltage output—up to 500 volts. DC fast charging stations can reach significantly higher rates of charging than other stations because of this high voltage and because DC power can bypass the limitations of the car’s on-board charger.

The on-board charger in electric cars converts the alternative current (AC) power that comes out of wall outlets to direct current (DC) power the car can use. Charging speed is limited by acceptance rate, or how much voltage the car can take. (If you want to learn more about how this works, read our previous blog post.)

Energy from DC fast charging does not need to pass through the car’s on-board charger. The speed of fast charging is solely managed by a battery management system. Source

However, for the aptly-named DC fast charging stations, the on-board charger is not required to convert the power source from AC to DC. The power coming from these stations is already DC, so electricity from the station can flow directly to the battery, bypassing the limitations of the on-board charger to achieve much faster rates of charging without adding significant weight or complexity to the car.

How Fast Is Fast Charging?

The only cap on DC fast charging is the car’s battery management system, or BMS, which is a software that controls battery performance. BMS can achieve fast charging rates by optimizing charging conditions when the battery is between 20% and 80% capacity. It is in this window that EV manufacturers have the opportunity to achieve much faster rates of car charging.

(EV tip: Batteries degrade faster with frequent cycling between 0% and 100% capacity. If you want to maintain the health of your battery for as long as possible, try to avoid charging to 100% and draining it to 0% before recharging. It’s much better to keep your car around half full for the majority of your driving.)

The fast charging rate of the BMW i3, like all electric cars, depends on the size of the battery, its state of charge, and ambient temperature. Even if the fast charger is able to deliver 50 kW, the actual rate of charging is often lower than that. The graph illustrates that as a battery approaches a full charge, the speed of charging decreases. Source

Many DC fast charging stations available now can support charging rates of 24 to 50 kW, and the maximum charging rate allowed for many EV models is about 50 kW. Considering imperfect battery conditions, the actual average charging rate is around 43 kW for a 50 kW station, which is equivalent to gaining 90 miles of range in 30 minutes of charging.

While there are several EV charging platforms competing on the market today, Tesla’s proprietary network of Superchargers has excelled because of station abundance and power. Tesla Superchargers can deliver as much as 120 kW of power, and they’re getting better because Tesla can make improvements to its’ cars’ BMS through periodic software updates. The third iteration of Superchargers is expected to be capable of charging at a rate of 250 kW, which is enough to add 75 miles of range in 5 minutes of charging or over 200 miles of range in 30 minutes.

Traditional car-makers are designing their cars with the rapid evolution of DC fast charging in mind. The Audi e-tron, a luxury electric SUV to rival Tesla, has a maximum rate of 150 kW for DC fast charging. In the non-luxury class, the 2019 Nissan LEAF Plus is capable of charging at around 70 kW, with a peak rate of 100 kW; that’s twice as fast as the regular version of the 2019 LEAF.

Plugshare screenshot showing EV charging stations across the U.S.
If you’re considering buying or leasing an electric car, check out the closest charger to you on PlugShare.

Since traditional automakers do not own their own charging networks, there aren’t many stations available for charging at rates higher than 50 kW.  But if you look at PlugShare, there are more DC fast charge stations around than most people think. It’s a good sign that EV models will be compatible with faster DC fast charging stations as they appear in greater abundance in the next couple of years.

What’s The Future Of DC Fast Charging?

If fast charging becomes significantly faster, do cars need huge battery packs to support 400+ miles of range? Maybe not; the vision for Lucid, a new electric car manufacturer started by a former Tesla employee, relies on small, 30 kWh batteries, ultra-high efficiency, and widespread, 350 kW fast charging stations. As quickly as the industry is growing, it’s unclear how long such a breakthrough would take or how expensive it would be to develop the necessary infrastructure to make this vision possible. As of 2015, it costs between $10,000 and $40,000 to install a single 50 kW DC fast charging port. They’re not going to appear on every street corner overnight, and it can cost as much as $100,000 for a single charger with a 250 kW capacity.

In the short term, the installation of new DC fast charging stations should be prioritized along interstate and highly-trafficked routes to accommodate for long-distance driving. Data collected from drivers can help install DC fast chargers strategically to improve access to on-the-go charging and get the most out of investment dollars in cities. But if a driver has easy-to-access options for Level II charging at work, the grocery store, or the gym, then convenience can quell range anxiety without having to invest in as many expensive DC fast chargers.

In fact, there are more DC fast charging stations being built all the time. Billion of dollars of Volkswagen settlement funds are going towards the deployment of fast-chargers across the country. Many states are using large chunks of their VW allotment to build out charging infrastructure; on top of this, VW’s Electrify America is investing $2 billion into developing a fast-charger network accessible to all electric car brands.

At its simplest, DC fast charging is the best way to compete with the 5-minute refueling time of a gas-powered car. It’s a convenience that many long-distance drivers can’t sacrifice, and so more abundant fast charging will make it even harder to justify ever using gasoline. Still, long road-trips make up a small portion of our driving miles, and most electric car drivers will continue to find charging at home most convenient.

 

Ready to learn more about electric cars?

If you live in Virginia, head to ElectrifyYourRideVA.org for more information and discounts on the latest electric models.

Not a Virginian? Don’t worry, you can sign the Going Electric pledge as a first step—then head over to the PlugStar Shopping Assistant, a great place to learn more about electric models currently on the market.

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Electric Car Charging 101

March 16, 2020

A version of this post by Mal Skowron was first published on the blog of Electrify Your Ride VA partner Green Energy Consumer Alliance. This is part 2 in a series of posts covering electric car charging. See part 1 here.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the role better battery technology could have in the proliferation of electric cars. Cheaper batteries will lower electric vehicle (EV) sticker prices while improving range.

But range isn’t the only figure that matters. Understanding charging is crucial to plan for this future and to make sure our infrastructure can meet the demand. As more consumers consider buying an EV, understanding the basics of EV charging will help assuage “range anxiety” and make the transition smoother. So, what’s important to know about EV charging?

 

Charging Basics

There are three levels of charging available for electric cars today: Level I, Level II, and DC fast charging.

  • Level I charging requires a standard 120-volt outlet. All electric vehicles come equipped with a cord that you can plug into a common outlet. It’s exactly like charging a smartphone or laptop.
  • Level II charging requires a 240-volt outlet and a charging unit. You can purchase a Level II charging unit and install it in your home with the help of a licensed electrician. If you don’t already have a 240-volt outlet in your home for a washer or dryer, an electrician can set that up, too.
  • DC fast charging is the fastest charging available for passenger cars. You cannot install a DC fast charging unit in your home, but they are available for public use for charging on the go.
Charging an electric car at home and in public
Most EV drivers charge at home as a matter of convenience. However, public charging makes it easier for drivers to charge on-the-go or when they need a little extra juice.

How Long Will It Take To Charge?

Charging is totally different from refilling gasoline. Most gas-powered cars are refueled when they are nearly empty. On the other hand, EVs are charged opportunistically; when there’s a plug available, drivers use it.

EV charging takes advantage of all the time cars spend parked, which is estimated to be 95% of the time. Even though it takes longer than pumping gas, charging is not time spent actively attending to the car—it’s time spent sleeping, eating, or working while the car is parked, so don’t be scared away by seemingly long charging times. In fact, since it takes less time to plug in at home or at work than to drive to a station and pump gas, EVs can save time that you would otherwise spend driving to and from the gas station. Here’s a chart showing average charging rates for each of the three levels of charging:

Different electric models have different sized batteries and can have different rates at which they can charge, but the above chart gives you a general idea.

What Happens When You Plug In

When most people say “charger,” they mean the cable that connects the power source to the device being charged, but that’s not quite accurate. An EV’s onboard charger is located inside the car and converts AC power from the wall outlet to DC power that can be stored in the battery. The speed at which an electric car can charge is limited either by the acceptance rate of the onboard charger or the power coming from the wall outlet—whichever is lower. Take a look at the diagram below to see how energy flows to the battery during charging.

Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) is just a fancy term for charging station. For Level I and Level II charging, the onboard charger determines the fastest rate that a car can charge. In the diagram, it’s clear that all energy has to go through the onboard charger before it can be stored in the battery. Source

Level I charging delivers about 4 miles of electric range per hour of charging for all electric cars because the maximum power that a common outlet can deliver is 1.4 kW. All new EV models have acceptance rates that exceed 1.4 kW, but since the power that comes from the outlet is limited to 1.4 kW, the charging rate of the car is too.

There is more variability in Level II charging speeds because different EVs have different acceptance rates. The EVs with similar charging rates, such as the Chevy Bolt, Kia Niro, and Hyundai Kona, all have a 7.2 kW onboard charger and charge at a rate of about 24 miles per hour. The Tesla Model 3 has a 7.7 kW charger, so it adds an additional mile of driving range per hour of charging on Level II.

However, having an onboard charger with a higher acceptance rate adds weight and cost to the car. That’s why plug-in hybrids tend to have lower acceptance rates than battery-electric vehicles – around 3.3 kW compared to 7.2 kW.

 

What To Look For In A Charging Station

Understanding how charging works is helpful for understanding your EV and for picking out a charging station that will suit your needs.

The maximum power output of a typical, 32-amp at-home charging station plugged into 240-volt outlet is 7.7 kW, which translates to a maximum rate of 25 miles of range per hour of charging. Cars like the Chevy Bolt have a 7.2 kW acceptance rate, so the actual average charging rate is a little lower – about 24 miles/hour. On the other hand, a Tesla Model S has acceptance rate of 11.5 kW, so it will charge at a rate of 25 miles per hour when plugged into the same charging station, but can accommodate a faster rate with a more powerful station.

Installing a charging station in your home can cost around $1,000, including the electrician’s time.

There are EV charging stations that can deliver more or less power from the same 240-volt outlet because they draw more or less current; charging stations can deliver 12 to 80 amps, so charging rates for Level II chargers can vary between 3.8 kW and 15.4 kW.

When shopping for an at-home Level II charging station, its power output should roughly match the EV’s acceptance rate. More powerful stations are more expensive. Here are a few factors to consider when comparison shopping for your EVSE.

  • Current: 30 and 32 amp chargers are most common since they deliver 7.2 and 7.7 kW of power, respectively. Many EVs on the market today have acceptance rates of about 7.2 kW, but check your car’s specs before buying a charging station; shelling out more money for a high-current station won’t necessarily make your car charge faster.
  • Cord length: The cord should easily reach your plug port from the station. Going with a longer cord offers you a little more flexibility; 25 feet is recommended for most people, but measure to make sure that’s enough. You cannot use an extension cord to give yourself extra length!
  • Physical size: Some charging stations are bulkier than others. Consider the space you have to install the station and the dimensions of the unit.
  • Smart features: If you’d like to monitor your charging, schedule charging sessions for off-peak times from your phone, or know exactly how much energy you’re using, you can opt for a smart charger with Wi-Fi connectivity.

For more advice, check out this buyer’s guide for home chargers.

 

Can We Charge Any Faster?

When it comes to overnight charging, Level I and II can deliver full driving range in the 6-8 hour window that most people are sleeping or working. Onboard chargers will likely stay as small as possible to optimize for other important factors like range and cost, but as batteries get more energy dense and lighter, faster charging could be on the way, too.

Although cars like the Chevy Bolt can only charge at a max rate of 7.2 kW using Level II charging, DC Fast Charging can add 90 miles in 30 minutes of charging, which translates to a rate of 50 kW.

And speaking of, faster charging is already here. DC fast charging stations are available for public use and can deliver as much as 50 kW of power to cars like the Bolt or as much as 150 kW for the new LEAF – much faster than their onboard chargers can accommodate. How is that possible? The third and final part of this series will focus on DC fast charging – what it is, how much better it can get, and how EVs can whittle hours of charging down to the time it takes to make a quick pit stop.

Ready to learn more about electric cars?

If you live in Virginia, head to ElectrifyYourRideVA.org for more information and discounts on the latest electric models.

Not a Virginian? Don’t worry, you can sign the Going Electric pledge as a first step—then head over to the PlugStar Shopping Assistant, a great place to learn more about electric models currently on the market.

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Four Hoos. Two Teams. One race to JPJ.

March 10, 2020

If that headline doesn’t pique your interest, this video isn’t for you. If you want to see ESPN’s Cory Alexander drag race Dave “Voice of the Cavaliers” Koehn in an electric car, then this is worth four minutes of your work-from-home “lunch hour.”

Check out the video and then sign the “Going Electric” pledge below.


Sign the ‘Going Electric’ pledge

Driving electric can save you money, improve your community’s air and health, and is an impactful way for you to take part in the transition to clean energy. Whether you’re planning to buy a car in the next week or the next five years, make it electric.

 

The ‘Going Electric’ pledge:

“I want to help accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy. I pledge to make the next vehicle I purchase an electric car.”

Want to share the video & pledge with someone?
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Why did we make this video? Because these guys are awesome and because electric cars are too. We’re working to spread awareness that electric cars now make a ton of sense for millions of Americans—and they’re one of the highest-impact actions you can take personally to help us get to a 100% clean energy future. 

Ready to take the next step? For those of you in and around Virginia, head over to electrifyyourrideva.org to learn more and sign up for discounts on the latest electric models. Not in the area? Plugstar.com is a great resource to learn more about available models. Happy driving!

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Urge Lawmakers to Support the Virginia Clean Economy Act

March 3, 2020

Guest post by Elizabeth Doerr and Cheryl Burke—school board members for Richmond Public Schools.

As mothers and school board members for Richmond Public schools (RPS), the welfare of children and our community is always on our minds. Every day we are working to maintain a climate in our schools that keeps our children safe and provides the resources they need to thrive in the future. Outside of our school buildings, we are facing a climate crisis that is threatening our global climate and our ability to provide our children the resources they need to thrive in the future.

We have a tremendous opportunity right now in Virginia to tackle climate change in a meaningful way. The Virginia Clean Economy Act is a comprehensive energy bill being presently considered by the General Assembly. This bill lays out a clear plan with enforceable benchmarks to get Virginia to a 100% clean energy standard by 2050. We are calling on you take action by speaking up for this landmark legislation that can help all of us, especially our youth, secure a brighter, healthier future. Together, we can achieve the bold vision of 100% clean energy that has already been outlined by Governor Northam.

Richmond Public Schools superintendent, school board members, and students
Elizabeth Doerr and Cheryl Burke with the teacher and students who advocated for solar at RPS celebrating the solar project completion.

How Solar Is Benefitting Richmond

Our school community has gained so much by joining in this transition to a carbon-neutral future. RPS currently has bragging rights to the biggest solar installation on a school district in Virginia.  With nearly 3 megawatts of solar installed on ten school rooftops, our impact is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 496 homes’ electricity use each year.

Going solar not only helped our district be better stewards of the planet, but also of the community’s tax dollars. Through a power purchase agreement with Secure Futures Solar, the solar project had no upfront cost to the district. In fact, we will be saving $2 million in electricity costs over the next 20 years. This project also came with a supporting grant from the Community Foundation of Richmond that enabled us to purchase additional energy monitoring devices and to fund a Sustainability Coordinator to work full time with RPS staff on going green.

A group of motivated elementary students and teachers came to the school board with a request to go solar on their schools. We are extremely proud that we found a way to say yes to them. Our solar panels signal to our students that we are looking out for their futures both inside and outside of the classroom. The technology is now being utilized by students at all different levels.

All eighth grade science teachers throughout the district received a professional development training and materials to help them incorporate solar energy lessons in the classroom. One high school class used the real-time data generated on the rooftops to participate in a collaborative research project with the Science Museum of Richmond, Secure Futures Solar, and students from Augusta County.

Expanding Access to the Rest of Virginia

Many other districts are ‘seeing the light’ and catching on to how solar can benefit their schools. According to nonprofit Generation180, the number of K-12 schools in Virginia that have gone solar has tripled since 2017. Other school districts are making plans to go solar and reap the same financial and education benefits we have received.  However, their plans are now on hold due to utility roadblocks that can only be removed with new legislation passed by the General Assembly.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act (SB 851/HB 1526) would not only remove those barriers to solar, but it will create numerous benefits for all Virginians. The bill’s plan for moving us to 100% clean energy will spur economic growth, create thousands of in-state jobs, reduce electric bills with energy efficiency, and mitigate the impacts of climate change that we are already facing now.

We hope you will all join us now in contacting your state legislators to ask for their support of the Virginia Clean Economy Act.  This is our last chance to speak up before the General Assembly session ends on March 7.

Our children and future generations are counting on us.

Use Generation180’s tool to contact your legislator and voice your support for this crucial clean energy policy.

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Primary blog photo credit: Secure Futures, LLC