As photo voltaic farms multiply throughout Virginia, officers reckon with land use challenges

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Dominion Vitality’s Whitehouse photo voltaic farm in Louisa County generates 20 megawatts on a 250 acre web site. (Dominion Vitality)Second in a five-part sequence on the commonwealth’s transition to a carbon-free electrical grid. Tomorrow: The push to ramp up distributed photo voltaic.

As soon as upon a time, Virginia noticed Halifax County as a golden place. 

Simply above the North Carolina border, within the coronary heart of Southside Virginia, Halifax’s sunshine and ample lands yielded among the nation’s largest crops of brightleaf tobacco. Delicate and aromatic, the yellow-leaved selection generally generally known as “golden tobacco” sparked awe amongst guests to the county’s public sale warehouses and introduced wealth pouring into the county. It was, the native historic society would later recall, the golden age of Halifax. 

Right this moment, the panorama is much totally different. The inhabitants has shrunk and is growing older. South Boston, as soon as an unbiased metropolis that till the Nice Melancholy was the second-biggest brightleaf market within the nation, reverted to a city in 1995 after ongoing fiscal struggles. Tobacco is a shadow of its former glory. 

Halifax, although, nonetheless has the 2 assets that after put it on the map: sunshine and ample land. Collectively, they’ve made the county some of the engaging in Virginia for photo voltaic builders seeking to convert huge swathes of agricultural and forest lands into fields of photo voltaic panels able to offering the hundreds of megawatts of energy wanted for the 100 % renewable grid lawmakers have pledged to create by 2050. 

In Halifax, that appears like a kind of 21st-century gold rush. Over the previous 5 years, the county has seen proposals for roughly a dozen large-scale photo voltaic farms. Eight tasks protecting some 5,500 acres have been permitted, and County Administrator Scott Simpson mentioned there’s room for extra. 

“The infrastructure that’s in place in Halifax so far as the ability infrastructure that’s owned by the ability firms is strong sufficient to just accept extra power into that grid,” he mentioned. And “Halifax has a number of land that’s out there round that infrastructure.” 

All through Virginia, “we now see a rise of exercise from bigger gamers within the improvement recreation, together with nationwide or multinational firms,” mentioned Matthew Gooch, an legal professional with Richmond-based power legislation agency Reisinger Gooch. “These with the sophistication and know-how are coming into the Virginia market given the understanding of demand for these tasks.” 

For giant-scale photo voltaic, although, demand means land. And because the tempo of improvement accelerates, Virginians should grapple with main modifications to the Outdated Dominion’s panorama. In comparison with coal and pure gasoline vegetation that emit air pollution that’s harmful to human well being, contributes to local weather change and disproportionately impacts low-income and minority communities, photo voltaic installations are low impression. However even advocates concede they’ve a bigger geographic footprint, and tensions exist between rural areas that see themselves as bearing the burdens of the photo voltaic buildout and the city areas that drive demand for renewables. 

“The fact is there’s going to be a number of photo voltaic stepping into — like, quite a bit,” mentioned Jonah Fogel, a program supervisor with the College of Virginia’s Environmental Resilience Institute who has studied the overlap between the state’s renewables targets and native land use issues. “For the common particular person driving down the roads, they’re going to be seeing power of their life in a approach that hasn’t occurred earlier than.” 

A transition already underway

Virginia’s landmark Clear Economic system Act of 2020 dedicated the state to an bold way forward for renewables slightly than the fossil fuels it has lengthy extracted from its southwestern mines and piped in from the shale fields. However for photo voltaic, the largest modifications got here from a lesser-known package deal of legal guidelines that try and resolve rising tensions between rural areas and the photo voltaic builders more and more flocking to them. 

“We usually seen photo voltaic with a jaundiced eye,” King and Queen County Administrator Tom Swartzwelder informed greater than 200 attendees at Virginia’s second Clear Vitality Summit this October. “Like, ‘Nicely, that’s nice, we’re going to get this 2,000 acre photo voltaic farm, and it’s going to assist a brand new Amazon facility someplace in Northern Virginia, and so they’re going to have $1 billion of (capital expenditures) for this facility and 10,000 jobs, and we’re going to have a photo voltaic facility.’”

In contrast to most different renewables, utility-scale photo voltaic was already on the upswing in Virginia previous to the VCEA’s passage. By the tip of 2019, in line with one developer’s calculation, plans had been introduced for greater than 17 gigawatts of photo voltaic power within the commonwealth, most of it by non-utility builders. The Division of Environmental High quality’s allow by rule program, which critiques photo voltaic tasks of between 5 and 150 megawatts, had seen purposes develop from one in 2015 to greater than 70 notices of intent in 2020. 

Consequently, the VCEA’s mandate that by 2035 electrical utilities Dominion Vitality and Appalachian Energy Firm put ahead plans for 16.7 gigawatts of latest photo voltaic and onshore wind — the equal of almost seven Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind farms — proved one of many least debated parts of the invoice. 

“The utility-scale sector was already sturdy. The VCEA simply matched that,” mentioned David Murray, govt director of the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia and Virginia chapter of the Photo voltaic Vitality Industries Affiliation, one of many greatest gamers in Virginia’s renewables sphere.

Nonetheless, as photo voltaic firms sought land throughout Virginia for his or her tasks, counties started to balk. The rule of thumb given present know-how is that for each megawatt of energy, roughly 10 acres is required. DEQ’s allow by rule coordinator, Mary “Beth” Main, has calculated that the 50 tasks already permitted by the division symbolize 27,000 acres of photo voltaic improvement. If all 70 tasks in this system’s queue go ahead, that determine will rise to virtually 100,000 acres. 

Whereas a few of these tasks are more likely to fail, others are sure to take their place. Because it has for wind and power storage, the VCEA has locked in demand for large-scale photo voltaic. Carveouts within the legislation requiring 35 % of all new photo voltaic to return from non-utility builders additionally ensures that whereas Dominion and Appalachian Energy would be the major offtakers of the useful resource, they received’t be the one ones within the recreation. Meant to cut back utility prices that would drive up clients’ payments, these provisions are in keeping with regulators’ choice for energy buy agreements over utility development, which the State Company Fee says “supplies important safeguards for patrons.”

Of their earliest plans for the way they are going to adjust to the VCEA, Dominion and Appalachian have signaled their embrace of third-party improvement. Of the almost 500 megawatts of photo voltaic Dominion proposed this October, greater than 80 % will come from non-utility firms. Appalachian Energy’s plan would supply half its first tranche of tasks from third events.

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Whether or not the complete 16.7 gigawatts will finally should be constructed out stays a matter of debate. As was the case with offshore wind, the query of whether or not the Clear Economic system Act’s declaration that 16.7 gigawatts of photo voltaic is within the public curiosity is a mandate for the fee to approve all photo voltaic tasks as much as that threshold stays unresolved. As Assistant Legal professional Normal Mitch Burton famous throughout hearings on Dominion’s long-range plan this October, “Any fee willpower over whether or not a public curiosity declaration equals a construct mandate has important implications for future buyer payments.”

Opponents of the proposed sPower photo voltaic venture in Spotsylvania County embellished outdoors a gathering of the county Board of Supervisors in 2019 at Spotsylvania Excessive College. (Sarah Vogelsong/ For the Virginia Mercury)

‘I’ve by no means seen something transfer that shortly’

Even earlier than the VCEA threw Virginia’s weight behind photo voltaic, the quantity of land the tasks required made Southside counties particularly nervous. The previous tobacco- and textile-producing area has confirmed extremely engaging to builders for its low cost, ample land and enormous transmission strains that present easy accessibility to the electrical grid. However its leaders feared dropping an excessive amount of land that they relied on for income and jobs. 

“That’s land that can be out of manufacturing for agriculture or timber manufacturing for a minimum of a technology,” mentioned Simpson. 

Photo voltaic builders and advocates argued tax revenues from photo voltaic farms far outstripped these from agriculture or timber. However many rural counties comparable to Halifax and King and Queen felt the association was removed from equitable. State photo voltaic incentives granted builders an 80 % discount in native property taxes and required that any tasks bigger than 25 megawatts be taxed in line with the native actual property tax fee as a substitute of the commonly a lot increased equipment and instruments tax fee. 

“Over a cycle of 35 to 45 years, it actually didn’t offset the impacts of photo voltaic,” mentioned Simpson. “We’re giving up our pure assets, our land, and we’re not being compensated correctly for it. And we felt like there ought to be much more fairness there.” 

Because the 2020 Normal Meeting session drew close to, the counties discovered themselves with surprising bargaining energy. The brand new Democratic majorities pushing for clear power motion wanted photo voltaic improvement to not solely proceed however speed up, and plenty of tasks have been discovering that the principle bottleneck they confronted was native approvals. Builders too have been longing for an answer to easy the trail ahead.

Three key legal guidelines finally emerged. One, generally known as the income share invoice, permits localities to interchange their equipment and instruments tax for photo voltaic with an power tax of as much as $1,400 per megawatt for a venture. A second reduces the equipment and instruments tax exemption over time. The third permits just about all localities to barter siting agreements with photo voltaic builders that may embrace incentives associated to broadband or different tasks already in native finances or capital enchancment plans. 

“We needed to empower counties to develop the precise set of instruments to make these tasks work if they need them,” mentioned Drew Value, managing director of Hexagon Energy, which is at the moment growing 10 photo voltaic tasks in Virginia. The brand new legal guidelines, he mentioned, have “enabled tasks that have been beforehand struggling to search out the precise set of agreements to make it a compelling native financial improvement alternative.” 

Native governments have been fast to flex their new energy. Surry County has used the income sharing legislation to strike a take care of Spring Grove Photo voltaic. Others like Sussex have adopted swimsuit. A device being developed by the Virginia Division of Mines, Minerals and Vitality and the UVA’s Weldon Cooper Middle may even quickly let localities weigh the monetary impacts of the income sharing route versus the decreased equipment and instruments tax exemptions. 

“We’ve seen within the final 5 months tens of thousands and thousands of by means of the siting agreements being pledged,” Swartzwelder, the King and Queen County administrator, informed Clear Economic system Summit attendees in October. “In my tenure, I’ve by no means seen something transfer that shortly to pump income into rural Virginia.” 

Dominon’s Scott Photo voltaic web site in Powhatan, proven earlier than panels have been put in, sits on 165 acres of land. (Dominion Vitality)

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Balancing conservation with carbon cuts

At the same time as many native governments’ issues about revenues have eased — though not disappeared; Simpson for one mentioned he nonetheless doesn’t suppose counties are getting “the complete worth” of photo voltaic developments — land conservation issues stay. 

“After I’m taking a look at siting, and this has to do with any venture … these lands are oftentimes the identical lands which are offering us our pure useful resource advantages, our ecological system advantages,” mentioned Dan Holmes, director of state coverage for the Piedmont Environmental Council. 

Underneath Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia has positioned an elevated emphasis on conservation. The governor has set a purpose of defending the highest 10 % of the state’s “excessive conservation worth lands” and in October 2019 established a particular cupboard to deal with the difficulty by govt order. The state’s ConserveVirginia mapping device can also be usually touted by the administration as a brand new frontier in state-level conservation efforts. 

So what occurs when the state’s two targets — photo voltaic improvement and land conservation — collide? 

That’s more and more more likely to occur, mentioned Fogel of the Environmental Resilience Institute: “As time goes on, we’re going to see upwards of 1 % of Virginia’s land space taken up by photo voltaic.” 

Conservationists concern that these commitments will chip away on the commonwealth’s beneficial assets, starting from concentrations of high-quality agricultural lands to forests that assist forestall erosion and soak up the very carbon within the environment that the renewables transition is attempting to fight. Holmes pointed to the deliberate Cricket photo voltaic venture in Culpeper, which was withdrawn in 2019, for example: 75 % of the land it was deliberate to cowl is recognized as top-priority land for conservation, he mentioned. 

Who’s within the driver’s seat in the case of photo voltaic land use selections additionally stays murky. With their zoning and allowing powers, native governments are sometimes the first assessors of a tract of land’s finest use, however their concerns are likely to cease on the county line. State-level critiques do happen by means of DEQ’s permit-by-rule course of, or different approvals overseen by the State Company Fee or DMME, however all are project-specific slightly than providing a broad framework for brand spanking new improvement. 

Even an entire image of what photo voltaic is being developed and the place is missing. As a result of tasks can observe a number of allowing routes, details about what’s within the pipeline is scattered between businesses. A just lately launched dashboard by the public-private SHINE partnership between Southside Virginia Neighborhood Faculty and MDV-SEIA has aimed to fill the hole however operates outdoors the auspices of presidency. 

Funding is one obstacle. Regardless of the explosive development in photo voltaic tasks, DEQ’s allow by rule course of continues to be overseen by a single full-time worker and is underfunded, with charges unchanged since 2012. Amendments to the laws that govern this system nonetheless want Northam’s signature to enter impact. 

The conservation query, then, could level to a broader query more likely to canine legislators in coming years: Who’s on the helm of the clear power transition? 

“It’s going to require a number of cooperation,” mentioned Invoice Shobe, director of the Middle for Economic and Coverage Research on the Weldon Cooper Middle at UVA. “One factor the Normal Meeting might be going to should sort out this 12 months is what kind of administrative locus on state authorities ought to have the accountability.” 

This story has been corrected to replicate that Shobe is the director for the Middle for Economic and Coverage Research on the Weldon Cooper Middle, not the director of the Weldon Cooper Middle. 

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