Residents and small businesses who have installed relatively large solar arrays may find that, instead of saving money by getting off the grid, they may face a new $60 per month charge for not using power from Dominion Virginia Power’s coal-fired plants.

Dominion took its request for a “stand-by” fee to the State Corporation Commission in Richmond today. In south Alexandria, on a sunny but cold morning, local clean energy business owners and activists with the Virginia Sierra Club staged a protest.

Workers install the District’s largest set of residential solar panels in July 2011, an 11.96 kilowatt system. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The charge, which the Virginia General Assembly explicitly allowed in legislation passed last year, would apply to people who generate between 10 and 20 kilowatt hours of electricity.

Those consumers see savings on their monthly bill from “net metering,” which allows their surplus power to go back into the grid, generating credits that the consumer can use to offset the cost of electricity when solar panels are not supplying power.

“The standby charge is a matter of fairness,” said David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power. “The sun doesn’t shine at night; the wind doesn’t always blow. It would be unfair for customers who don’t have these systems to have to pay the infrastructure costs for those who do. The charge lets Dominion recover costs for serving the customers whose alternative energy system does not provide the power they need.”

Dominion said that without the standby charge, a resident with a 20-kilowatt system would be charged only about $8 per month, although the fixed infrastructure cost is the same as for any other customer. In testimony before the State Corporation Commission, a Dominion executive said the company wants to put the fee into effect April 1. The public comment period about the request is open until Dec. 1; the case number is PUE-2011-00088.

Dominion plans to shut down two older coal-fired plants, an action that drew praise from the Sierra Club activists. But they objected to the failure of the utility to invest more heavily in solar, wind and other non-fossil-fuel energy.

Dominion officials said the company has more than 400 megawatts of alternative, renewable energy in its portfolio, mainly run-of-river hydroelectric power stations and the largest wood waste power station in the United States. Dominion Virginia Power is also studying the possibility of building a 4 megawatt solar facility in Halifax County, Va. Dominion Resources, its parent company, co-owns two large wind farms in Indiana and West Virginia.

None of this matters in Virginia, the Sierra Club activists said, because that energy is not sold in the commonwealth. They said the attempt to impose such a high standby fee on consumers, and other efforts to prevent third-party providers from installing solar arrays in Dominion’s territory, are actions that speak louder than their words.

“Talk is cheap,” Main said. “Not only are they not interested in solar energy, they don’t want anyone else to do it.”