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Rural counties wrestle with solar power demands from Northern Virginia

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In the past four months:

  • The Fauquier County Planning Commission has rejected two proposals to build utility solar fields on farmland in the county.
  • The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors voted down a plan to construct a solar field covering 1,700 acres.
  • The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors rushed to pass an ordinance that restricts utility solar projects to parcels of a minimum of 500 acres with panels covering only 100 contiguous acres.
  • The Page County Board of Supervisors voted to hold off on supporting large-scale solar developments for now.
  • The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a solar farm on just under 100 acres of agriculturally zoned land.

So goes the land use quandary stewing in rural counties around Virginia, the result of a building friction between the state’s ambitious renewable energy goals and the desire of communities to preserve productive farmland and with it, their agricultural identities. Unlike a homeowner installing rooftop panels to offset electric costs, so-called “solar fields” or “utility-scale” solar projects can require many acres. They generate energy directly into the electric grid, not for end-use customers.

On a deeper level, as electric vehicles and huge data centers boost the state’s power needs, there’s a wariness that rural communities will one day be expected to provide the solar energy to meet the demand.

“We want to do our share, but not more than our share,” said Sam McLearen, Culpeper County’s planning director. “We’re open to this kind of energy, but we want to keep it within the bounds of Culpeper. We don’t want to be providing energy for the data centers in Northern Virginia.”

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A solar panel array behind The Arbors at Culpeper Senior Assisted Community

The right balance

For Julie Bolthouse, the prospect of solar panels lining open fields is a knotty matter. As deputy director of land use for the Piedmont Environmental Council focusing primarily on Fauquier County, she’s all in on the shift to renewable energy. But, she said, it comes down to navigating the right balance.

“There’s a deep need to address climate change,” Bolthouse said. “That being said, though, we shouldn’t clear-cut our forests or potentially risk our food security by eliminating farms. There’s also the recreational value of the land, particularly for a place like Rappahannock, which is at the gateway to the national park. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered.”

Bolthouse cited the case of the massive utility solar project that will eventually comprise as many as 1.8 million panels spread over 3,500 acres in western Spotsylvania County. The first phase went into operation this summer, and ultimately is expected to produce 484 megawatts of power for the electrical grid. For comparison, using a 100-watt light bulb as a yardstick, a single megawatt equals a million watts. Apple, Microsoft and the University of Richmond have already contracted to receive renewable energy credits from the facility.

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Julie Bolthouse, deputy director of land use with the Piedmont Environmental Council, outside the organization's headquarters in Warrenton

It’s the first example in the eastern United States of the huge solar “farms” that already cover great expanses of land in California and other western states. But those developments have been built on mostly arid soil. The Spotsylvania Solar Center covers what were once forests and fields.

“They cleared that entire area all at once so there’s a lot of sediment in storm water ponds around it,” Bolthouse said. “Neighbors were concerned because the streams were running brown.” Instead, she believes utility solar projects in Virginia should be developed in relatively small chunks, maybe 50 acres at a time, so that the land can be seeded and stabilized in phases.

That said, she prefers smaller-scale projects that could have much less impact on the region’s natural resources. “You might have a 25-acre site, and it doesn’t have prime agricultural soil; it’s not in an historic area; it doesn’t impact the viewshed. It might make sense to use that land for solar.”

Utility solar explosion

Only five years ago, no utility-scale solar facilities were operating in Virginia. Since then, the business has exploded. Last year, in fact, more than 1.4 gigawatts of solar were installed in the state, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. That’s fourth in the country, behind only California, Texas and Florida. Virginia also ranks fourth in projected growth over the next five years. A gigawatt is equal to one billion watts.

Any doubt about the state’s long-term commitment to renewable energy faded when Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act in April 2020. Not only does it require Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to be carbon-free by 2045 and 2050 respectively, but it also specifies that having a target of 16.7 gigawatts of solar power produced in Virginia would be in the “public interest.”

But even with those aggressive goals, the final decisions on whether utility solar projects are approved and where they’re located remains at the local level. So, the state legislature also passed laws to sweeten the potential financial benefits for counties. One allows municipalities to replace their machinery and tools tax with a “revenue-share” arrangement that would pay a county up to $1,400 per megawatt for a project. That would tend to make large-scale solar facilities more appealing, at least fiscally.

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Sam McLearen is Culpeper County’s planning director.

Another new law enables county officials to negotiate what are known as “siting agreements” through which a solar developer would be asked to help cover a municipality’s planned capital expenses, such as for road repairs or broadband upgrades.

The laws add another level of scrutiny to an issue that’s already challenging local officials trying to figure out how much utility solar makes sense in their communities.

“You have some folks who don’t want to see these anywhere,” said McLearen, the Culpeper planner. “You have some folks who feel the county could do well with one or two big projects. And you have some who think the projects should be smaller so we can hide them the best we can. So, you’re trying to serve different ideas about this.”

Fishing for prospects

There’s also the matter of aging landowners looking to find another source of revenue by leasing or selling property to solar companies, and developers haven’t been shy about fishing for prospects.

“You have landowners who don’t want to farm any more who are highly incentivized by the big dollars developers are offering for their land,” said Susan Ralston, founder of Culpeper-based Citizens for Responsible Solar. “I get it. But in Culpeper, we do not want the historical or agricultural heritage of the land destroyed.

“People should have the right to do what they want with their land … until you impact somebody else,” she added. “That’s why proper zoning is so important. Let’s properly site these projects where they’re not objectionable to the community and adjacent landowners.”

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Susan Ralston is the founder of Culpeper-based Citizens for Responsible Solar. She is standing with a historical map of nearby civil war battle sites and two maps showing the proposed industrial solar farm on agricultural land, just south of Culpeper.

Ralston admits she knew little about utility solar until March 2019, a few months after Cricket Solar submitted an application to build a facility on 1,600 acres near her 30-acre horse farm in Culpeper. It would have contained more than 380,000 solar panels and generated about 80 megawatts of solar energy.

That August, Cricket withdrew its application, but Ralston sees the solar land rush only accelerating. “Developers are trying to get a foothold in rural counties,” she said. “They know agricultural land is inexpensive. They have a lot more money, and a lot more experts and attorneys. All we can do is arm our citizens and local officials with information.”

Meeting a growing demand

However, it’s not simply a case of solar developers indiscriminately shopping for property. In fact, most of the land in the Piedmont region isn’t suitable for utility solar. That could be because it’s in a flood plain or near wetlands, or not close enough to a high-capacity electricity transmission line or power substation, or that it slopes too much.

In fact, according to a 2018 analysis by the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission, only about 6% of the area within Fauquier, Rappahannock, Culpeper, Orange and Madison counties was found to be appropriate for solar development. The study also excludes “prime agricultural lands.”

Orange County has the highest percentage of suitable land — about 13% — while Fauquier and Culpeper both total around 6%, the researchers concluded. Rappahannock and Madison fall at the low end of the scale, with 1.9% and 1.7% respectively of land suitable for utility solar.

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Lee District Supervisor Chris Butler discusses a proposed zoning amendment outlining standards for utility-scale solar energy facilities at an Oct. 8 meeting.

Still, as the cost of developing solar projects continues to fall while the demand for renewable energy climbs, the pressure on local officials will intensify. How do they accommodate utility-scale solar while staying true to their comprehensive plans?

Jonah Fogel is the program director for the Environmental Resilience Institute at the University of Virginia; he works with local governments and the state on energy planning and policies. He said, “Solar is the latest emerging land use for which we need to have a public dialogue. As we build out the energy future for the country and decarbonize the economy, there are going to be tradeoffs.”

He anticipates that demand for solar could far exceed the target of 16.7 gigawatts called for in the Virginia Clean Economy Act, pointing out that data centers are now big drivers of the clean energy economy.

“For us to have Netflix and all these other services in our homes, we’re going to have to energize a system that doesn’t rely on high-intensity carbon sources,” Fogel said. “But we’ve got to remember that this didn’t come from nowhere. We have an energy demand we’re going to have to meet, and these are the technologies that get us there.”

And that, he said, is making rural boards of supervisors and planning commissions start to wrestle with a vexing set of questions. What role, if any, should their communities play in supporting the shift to renewable energy? To what degree? And, how do they weigh the potential financial benefits versus what could be lost?

“Not everywhere is good for solar, and that’s the starting point,” said Fogel. “They need to look at what lands are likely to be developed, and what they can do in those areas to be supportive of that land use, but restrictive in a way that’s responsible for the goals of the community. Through that process, they can say this is a land use that can occur here, and we know how to do it in a responsible way.

“The last thing I’d want to see is for municipalities to say ‘no’ to solar because they just don’t want to deal with it.”

Randy Rieland is a freelance writer who writes for the Foothill Forum, a non-profit agency providing support for local news.

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