How much solar is enough?
It’s the kind of philosophical question that might be debated at U.N. climate change conferences and at meetings of green energy proponents.
But for the 12,000 residents of Charlotte County, the question is not an abstraction. It’s about thousands of acres of land, and about property rights, and about money, and about farming, and about environmental concerns – and it’s a question that might be answered this week.
Tuesday night, the county planning commission will hold a public hearing on a developer’s request to build an 800-megawatt solar facility that would have more than 3,000 acres of panels – nearly 5 square miles – across a total land area of 21,000 acres. It would be among the largest such projects in the U.S.
Charlotte County already has one utility-scale solar project in operation, another under construction and two more in the permitting phase, for a total of more than 3,000 acres. And next week, the planning commission is scheduled to take up another one: a 220-megawatt project on 2,000 acres called Tall Pines.
“My board and the planning commission, as they’re reviewing and updating the comprehensive plan, are asking the question, how much is enough?” said Dan Witt, the county administrator. “Do we set a limit on the number of megawatts? Do we set a limit on – OK, when we reach 10,000 acres in the county, is that it? Is there a threshold?
“They’re seriously looking at that and looking at what other localities have done – because how much is enough? I think it’s a really good question.”
And Charlotte County isn’t alone in wrestling with it. As demand for renewable energy has surged, localities across central and eastern Virginia have seen a steady influx of utility-scale solar projects over the last six years. Some counties that welcomed solar developers early on are now rethinking their enthusiasm; others are waiting to even consider solar-related zoning ordinances until they can see how these projects play out in neighboring localities.
There are now 51 utility-scale solar facilities of 5 megawatts or more in Virginia, according to a tally kept by Aaron Berryhill, solar program manager at Virginia Energy. Less than 18 months ago, there were 38, with a capacity of nearly 3,300 megawatts.
It’s hard to say how many more are in the works, as initial siting permission is left up to individual localities and there’s no statewide tally of early-stage projects. But there are more than 70 projects awaiting approval by either the Department of Environmental Quality or the State Corporation Commission, their spokespeople said, for a total of at least 2,900 megawatts of capacity.
And there are many more that have not reached the state permitting phase yet.
With Virginia’s electric utilities scrambling to meet clean energy goals set by the General Assembly, and large corporations setting aggressive carbon-neutrality goals, the demand for solar generation – and for the land it requires – is only going to continue.
It used to be that massive solar farms were primarily the province of deserts and other sunny, wide-open spaces out West.
But as the cost of photovoltaic components has dropped and their efficiency has risen – and as demand for carbon-neutral power sources has surged among large corporations – developers have flocked to the East Coast.
Over the last five years DEQ and the SCC have approved more than 130 utility-scale solar projects with a capacity of more than 5,700 megawatts, according to their spokespeople and data provided on their websites. DEQ issues permits for projects between 5 and 150 megawatts, while the SCC can approve projects of any size.
Many point to the effects of the 2020 Viginia Clean Economy Act, which calls for the deployment of 16,100 megawatts of solar and wind power, and mandates that the power supplied by the state’s two electric utilities be carbon-free by 2050, giving Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power a forceful push toward renewable energy sources.
(Dominion is a major donor to Cardinal News; donations have no influence on editorial policy.)
To date, Dominion either owns or is the dedicated customer of 27 utility-scale solar farms in Virginia, with another 14 projects in the works, for a total generation capacity of 2,500 megawatts, according to its website. Appalachian Power has purchase agreements in place for 144 megawatts of power from six projects that are either planned or already in operation, a spokeswoman said. The company also has submitted an application to the SCC to purchase a 150-megawatt project in Pittsylvania County, and it owns a 5-megawatt solar facility in Amherst County, she said.
But Virginia’s solar ascendancy actually started several years earlier when, in 2015, the General Assembly passed legislation saying that the development of 500 megawatts of solar projects in the state by 2020 was “in the public interest.”
That was the beginning of utility-scale solar in Virginia, said Francis Hodsoll, the CEO of SolUnesco, the Reston-based developer behind the 21,000-acre Randolph Solar project in Charlotte County.
SolUnesco dates to that turning point. Hodsoll said he’d been watching solar activity build in other states and believed that it would take off in Virginia as soon as policymakers gave it the green light.
Today, SolUnesco has 13 projects in various stages of the approval process in Virginia. Some are under construction, Hodsoll said; none is yet operational. Randolph Solar is by far the largest of the company’s projects.
The move toward renewables by many of the country’s largest companies has played a significant role in solar’s growth. A 2021 report by the World Wildlife Fund found that 60% of Fortune 500 companies have set at least one target related to greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, renewable energy sourcing or net-zero emissions, up 12 percentage points from 2017.
Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook were among the early corporate investors in solar in Virginia, with Amazon partnering with Dominion in 2016 on what was at the time the largest solar farm in the mid-Atlantic region, an 80-megawatt facility in Accomack County. Today, Amazon says it has commitments to buy the electricity from 17 Virginia solar farms – some already in operation and some yet to launch – to power its data centers and new Northern Virginia HQ2.
Legislation enacted in recent years by the General Assembly was designed to make large-scale solar projects more attractive to localities by allowing them to negotiate siting agreements that can provide additional benefits to the community, and by providing the option of a revenue-sharing model through which a locality can receive up to $1,400 per megawatt per year. Both were in response to complaints from localities that the financial incentives being offered to solar developers, like a reduction in local machine and tools tax payments, were building the state’s solar portfolio at the expense of local government revenues.
While utility-scale solar projects have been proposed for just about every corner of the state, from Wise to Accomack, from Culpeper to Mecklenburg, the counties of central and Southside Virginia have been particularly popular thanks to their flat to gently rolling terrain, their vast swaths of undeveloped acreage and their relatively low land costs.
Among the activity seen in the region:
Halifax County has one utility-scale solar facility already in operation, seven more approved, and another up for a public hearing on Tuesday.
Campbell County has two utility-scale solar projects under construction, and two others have been approved by the county.
Mecklenburg County has two utility-scale solar farms in operation. A third has been approved by the county, and a public hearing on a fourth is scheduled for later this month. The county denied a permit for another solar operation earlier this year; that developer has reapplied, with some adjustments, according to Robert Hendrick, the county’s zoning administrator.
Randolph Solar, the Charlotte County project, stands out in Virginia’s solar landscape for its sheer size: It has been called the largest or the second-largest solar project east of the Rockies. The largest solar farm in Virginia right now is a facility in Spotsylvania County that has the capacity to produce 484 megawatts of power; its 3,500 acres of panels are on a total site of 6,400 acres.
SolUnesco is in an exclusive relationship with Dominion to purchase the Randolph project, Hodsoll said.
SolUnesco plans to connect to a 500-kilovolt power line that runs through the southernmost portion of the site. To connect to a line that large is expensive, Hodsoll said, and to make it work financially requires a large project.
The company found the land to support that scale of project in Charlotte County, he said.
According to the Randolph Solar website, the project footprint includes 300 parcels optioned by 146 landowners, for a total of 21,000 acres. The land is mostly zoned agricultural.
But the website says that only 15% of the land – about 3,100 acres – will be covered by an estimated 1.66 million solar panels. Up to 6,850 acres will be preserved as forested areas and wildlife corridors, it says. Several thousand more acres will be buffers and setbacks, Hodsoll said. About 900 of the optioned acres won’t even be part of the project, the website says.
Berryhill, whose master’s degree capstone project at Virginia Commonwealth University looked at solar farm siting, said he hasn’t seen a developer in Virginia to date that has been as willing to acquire so much additional land for buffers and conservation.
His research also pointed out that some of the same qualities that make land good for farming also make it highly suitable for solar facilities: climate, topography, accessibility, soil stability and parcel size.
His analysis found that as of early 2021, 63% of the land used for solar facilities had previously been forested land. Agricultural land accounted for another 32%.
Those numbers were somewhat skewed by two very large solar facilities that were built primarily on forested land, he said.
Taking that into account and looking at the land use in a slightly different way, he found that the average type of land used by a solar facility was about 46% cropland and 38% forest. This means, he said, that an individual solar facility in Virginia is more likely to be sited on cropland than on forest land.
Charlotte County has an ordinance that governs the nuts and bolts of utility-scale solar facilities: how far they must be from town limits, how large the setbacks must be, how the decommissioning process must work.
Witt said the ordinance, which predates his arrival in the county four years ago, has been updated several times. He thinks the board was smart to develop such guidance before starting to look at any solar projects.
“They said, if this is coming, we want to have some control over this and we want to have an ordinance in place that guides our decision, that helps with the planning process for solar, whether it’s the larger scale, the medium, or the smaller,” he said.
The county’s comprehensive plan is a different story. A comprehensive plan, which must be updated every five years by state law, is supposed to serve as an overarching guide to future development, to set the county’s priorities and provide a blueprint against which to compare proposals for housing and economic development and transportation and other growth.
Nowhere does the word “solar” appear in Charlotte County’s 135-page plan, which was adopted in 2017 and is currently being revised. The closest it gets is this recommended action: “Encourage and assist in the development of alternative energy production.”
“Right now, it’s vague, so it’s hard to interpret what was meant by ‘We support renewable energy,’” Witt said.
That has created conflict at times, he said, like when it contradicts other statements in the comprehensive plan about the importance of maintaining farmland or protecting the county’s rural character. Finding a balance has been a challenge, he said.
Joe Lerch, director of local government policy at the Virginia Association of Counties, said he’s been meeting with officials across the state – including in Charlotte County – to provide whatever guidance he can as they debate questions of land use.
Some counties, including Southampton, Page and Nottoway, have enacted moratoriums on new solar farms to give their planners a chance to update their zoning ordinances, and to see how similar projects are playing out in other places.
Others have amended their guidelines. Augusta County last year updated its comprehensive plan to place additional limits on utility-scale solar, while the board of supervisors in Mecklenburg County voted this month to limit the size and location of new solar facilities.
Franklin County’s board tabled its discussion about a solar ordinance last month, with members raising concerns about decommissioning, property rights issues and siting restrictions, and saying they needed more information from the planning staff before they could proceed. The discussion is likely to resume this summer, according to planning director Lisa Cooper.
Other localities have simply decided to take no action. After several years of talking about the issue, the Bedford County Board of Supervisors in February effectively killed a proposed ordinance that would have laid out rules for utility-scale solar projects.
The discussion dates back to the fall of 2020, when the board asked the planning commission to draft a solar ordinance. Jordan Mitchell, the county’s director of community development, said that county landowners had been hearing from solar developers interested in securing options on their properties, and the county wanted to explore that possible land use.
One of the developers looking at Bedford County was Urban Grid Solar, which had secured options on 843 acres near Huddleston, where it wanted to build a 75-megawatt solar farm with a lifespan of 35 years, The (Lynchburg) News & Advance reported in September 2020. Under the newly created revenue-share model, the county would have received up to $105,000 per year from the project.
The board got the draft ordinance in late February. After hearing from both supporters and opponents of large-scale solar projects – including a representative of Urban Grid – the board declined to set a public hearing on the ordinance, stopping the process in its tracks.
The concerns were varied: Supervisors were worried about how the ordinance would mesh with solar-related legislation passed just that day in Richmond, about the problems that other localities were having with large solar facilities, about whether the county’s existing staff could handle what Mitchell predicted would be an influx of permitting and inspection work.
Supervisor Bob Davis brought the debate around to the county’s comprehensive plan. He reminded his fellow supervisors that during a recent discussion about updating the plan, they’d put agriculture and tourism at the top of their list of priorities.
“These solar facilities will kill both,” he said.
The arrival of solar facilities – he refused to “dignify them” by calling them farms, he said – would bring the destruction of farmland and would change the entire landscape of the county, he warned.
Bedford County’s current comprehensive plan – which doesn’t mention solar farms – puts a high priority on preserving agricultural areas and their rural character, Mitchell said, and residents seem to like that: A survey conducted as part of the county’s ongoing comp plan update found that more than 90% of respondents still value the “pastoral nature” of the county, he said.
Meanwhile, the future of the Urban Grid project is unclear.
“While we are still evaluating the impact of the decision in Bedford (to set aside a draft solar ordinance without giving the public the opportunity to comment), we continue to work with landowners and county stakeholders throughout Virginia to add renewable energy to the power grid where interconnection opportunities and community sentiment are well aligned,” Rob Propes, a project development manager for the company, said in a statement.
Concern over losing farmland is a common refrain among rural localities faced with an influx of solar development, said Elizabeth Marshall, who coordinates the Virginia Solar Initiative at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
These are often places that for generations have been important to the state for their agricultural productivity, she said, and even a small loss of farmable acreage is worrisome to people whose identity is centered around farming.
“How we preserve and treat and conserve our most valuable agricultural and forestal lands is a concern everybody shares,” she said. “I think there are some groups that are working really diligently to understand that.”
One such group is the Nature Conservancy, which studied how much of Virginia’s land would be suitable for solar farms, and whether the state’s clean-energy goals could be met without touching prime farmland, wildlife habitats or areas of cultural or historical importance.
It found that Virginia has about 6.48 million acres of land that meets those criteria. Assuming that 10 acres of land is needed to generate 1 megawatt of electricity – an amount that’s at the high end of solar industry estimates – the state would need 161,000 acres of land to meet the solar energy goal set in the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the study found.
The model probably overstates land availability, its authors acknowledge. To keep the model relatively simple, it looked at elevation, distance from transmission lines, existing land cover and area, but it didn’t take into account land price or available capacity on nearby transmission lines.
Even so, the authors say, the study suggests that Virginia has “many times more potentially suitable solar land area than is needed” to meet the state’s goals while still conserving natural resources.
As demand for utility-scale solar has grown in Virginia, so has the attention paid to it by legislators. The General Assembly addressed the topic in several bills during its 2022 session.
One bill, sponsored by Del. Keith Hodges, R-Middlesex County, mandated the creation of a work group that will analyze the life cycle of the materials used in solar farms – and what can, and should, happen to those components when a facility is decommissioned.
Under another bill, HB 894, Virginia Cooperative Extension will create a map of prime farmland, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bill, sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, also says that the state may work with Appalachian Power and Dominion to identify relevant distribution and transmission grid information to further help localities determine the best places for solar farms, and it directs the Department of Energy to “consider the economic development of rural Virginia while minimizing the impact on prime farmland” while updating the state’s energy plan.
Lerch said he hopes that this kind of legislation will provide guidance for localities while still allowing them to make their own decisions about land use.
“It’s kind of the wild, Wild West in terms of these independent firms coming and putting properties together, and they’re going to produce a lot of energy to sell to the grid,” he said. “But what localities want to know is, well, where is the infrastructure already located in our locality that would best suit it? And how do we marry that up with land that might be best suited for our land-use goals?”
Yet another bill that deals with the tension between expanding solar capacity and protecting high-quality land was the subject of some debate during the recent session in Richmond.
HB 206, which was patroned by Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier County, requires DEQ to analyze the impacts to farm and forest lands when it reviews applications for utility-scale solar installations. The developer of any project that would affect more than 10 acres of prime agricultural land or more than 50 acres of contiguous forested land would have to submit a mitigation plan. It applies only to projects of up to 150 megawatts that go through DEQ’s permitting process, so very large solar installations like the one proposed for Charlotte County would not be subject to this requirement.
Chris McDonald, director of government relations at Williams Mullen, a Richmond law firm, said during a late March webinar about solar-related legislation that there had been “no more impactful bill” for solar than HB 206 during this General Assembly session.
The bill generated “enormous opposition” from the solar industry, he said. The tech industry – in particular, the energy-hungry data center sector – also opposed it, as did groups in the clean energy realm like the American Clean Power Association.
Both the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Agribusiness Council supported it.
Environmental groups arrayed themselves on both sides of the issue, he said, with some defending the bill’s conservation goals and others wary of its impacts on meeting the targets set by the Clean Economy Act.
The end result included several key compromises: DEQ and other agencies will convene an advisory panel to help develop regulations to implement the requirements, and any project that has submitted its interconnection request before the end of 2024 will not be subject to the bill’s requirements.
Dan Holmes, who until this month was director of state policy at the Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council, pointed out the challenges of meeting both the carbon-neutral goals of the Clean Economy Act and the clean water goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, to which Virginia is a signatory.
The state’s farm and forest lands play a critical role in cleaning and filtering water and keeping waterways – and, eventually, the bay – free of pollutants, he said. Losing too much of that acreage to solar farms is likely to affect the cleanliness of the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
The state needs to do a better job of steering solar developers away from prime forest and farm land and toward less productive – but still solar-suitable – land, Holmes said. Localities can accomplish some of that through their comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances, he said. But when the resources in question are critical to meeting other goals – like Chesapeake Bay water quality measures – the state needs to play a role as well, he said. He’d like to see DEQ and the SCC incorporate this issue into their permitting processes.
DEQ recently announced one change to the way solar farms will be regulated. A new stormwater management policy for solar projects is intended to more accurately measure, and better manage, rainfall runoff from acres of panels.
Holmes also warned that even after these solar sites are decommissioned in 30, 40, 50 years, they’re likely to no longer be suitable for farming, other than possibly for pastureland. Land used for solar facilities tends to lose valuable topsoil to grading, he said, and the earth that’s left gets compacted “at drastic rates.”
“While no one’s trying to stand in the way of solar, I would say I think a lot of people are concerned about the current siting characteristics that we’re seeing from the industry,” he said. “And we just think there’s probably a better way. A big start of that is what can we do on our rooftops, what can we do on our brownfields, our grayfields, before we’re going to our green fields to pursue what’s left.”
There’s an interest in finding ways to reuse former mine lands for solar projects. The Nature Conservancy and Dominion are collaborating on a plan to build a 50-megawatt solar farm on 1,200 acres of a former surface mine and surrounding properties in Wise and Dickenson counties. Two similar projects in the same region will boost the total output to 120 megawatts, the Nature Conservancy said.
A smaller solar project, also on former mine land, broke ground last fall in Wise County. The 3.46-megawatt array on 20 acres of a business park is designed to support a data center located in the park.
SolUnesco’s Hodsoll said his company is interested in building on reclaimed lands, and provisions in the Clean Economy Act provide some incentives for doing just that.
But it’s not necessarily easy, he said. One of SolUnesco’s first projects, in Greensville County, was intended to be sited on reclaimed surface mining land, he said. But the company had to move it because a site analysis determined that the land wouldn’t be stable for decades and would be subject to settling.
“It’s not as straightforward as, ‘Oh, let’s just use land that was previously used for some kind of mining operation or industrial operation and put solar panels on there,’” he said. “We do believe it’s a very viable thing to do, but you’ve got to find the right sites.”
Groups like the Virginia Land and Liberty Coalition, which is affiliated with Conservatives for Clean Energy, tout solar farms as smart investments in the nation’s energy independence.
And they say that opponents who insist on maintaining agricultural acreage are actually hurting farmers by preventing them from doing what they want with their own land – land that they might not be interested in farming any longer, for reasons of health or finances or lack of a family succession plan.
“Every conversation on the use of private land must begin and end with protecting property rights,” the group’s website says. “Property rights are paramount, and any attempt to limit these rights are anti-liberty, anti-American, and pro-big government.”
Jonathan Sweet, Pulaski County’s administrator, has seen that issue play out in his county, where a 2,700-acre, 280-megawatt solar project received approval from the board of supervisors last year.
“These are business-to-business transactions between the solar companies and our private citizens, who happen to be farmers, and who happen to want to retain their land, and earn a living from it still, without getting up at 5 in the morning in the cold and feeding cattle,” he said.
Some solar farm detractors are upset, Sweet said, because they don’t want such facilities to affect their viewsheds – or, as he put it, their ability to enjoy the view of someone else’s property. Some worry that solar farms will drive up the cost of leasable farmland. Some already might lease some of the land in question, or maybe want to buy it, and now they can’t.
The Pulaski County project is currently hung up in court over a lawsuit involving easements, he said.
Opponents should think about how else that land might be used, if not for solar, he said.
“Paradoxically, we’re not losing that land – we in fact are retaining that land,” Sweet said. “Because when a farmer does not have a succession plan and their children aren’t following their career path, they’re going to do what with that land? It’s going to become a subdivision. So we’re going to lose those farms unless there’s a way for these farmers to make money off of that land.”
From Pulaski County’s perspective, a large solar facility is an economic development driver, Sweet said. He believes that being able to offer a variety of renewable energy sources will make Pulaski County more attractive to data centers and to large corporations that take their environmental responsibilities seriously. The county already hosts a hydroelectric dam at Claytor Lake, and there’s a proposal to build a wind farm on land owned by the Boy Scouts of America.
“We would have the full spectrum of renewable energy platforms,” he said. “For a community of 35,000 to be producing that many megawatts of green energy and renewable energy would make us second to none.”
The current plan, Sweet said, is to devote revenue from the solar farm to building a new community center.
Sweet said he’s been asked to talk to a number of groups, including the Sierra Club and the Virginia Solar Summit, about Pulaski County’s approach to renewables. People are struck, he said, by the fact that a conservative-voting county has decided to pursue a solar project of this size.
“It’s a green issue,” he said. “It’s not a red or blue issue.”
Tuesday night’s public hearing in Charlotte County was moved from the county administration building to the high school to accommodate what’s expected to be a large crowd.
Among the speakers are likely to be residents who worry about the loss of farmland, about traffic, about what more than a million solar panels would do to the viewshed, about the risk of erosion and sedimentation, about the impact on hunting and wildlife.
Also among the expected speakers: the property owners who have sold SolUnesco options on their land, and who stand to reap an even greater financial benefit if the project moves forward.
SolUnesco generally gives landowners the option to either sell or lease their land to the company for the longer term, Hodsoll said; on this project, the vast majority chose the leasing option, he said.
Charlotte County also stands to make money if the project is approved.
At the rate of $1,400 per megawatt per year, the county’s share of the revenue would be $1.1 million for each of the first five years, and it would see subsequent 10% increases over time, Witt said. And that’s not including whatever benefits are laid out in the siting agreement.
By comparison, Witt said, each 1 cent increase in the county’s real estate tax rate nets about $100,000.
“If you’re an elected official looking at that and trying to figure out how to reduce taxes and stuff, it’s a challenge” to weigh those financials against the loss of farmland or scenery, he said.
At the same time, he’s not sure whether utility-scale solar would really bring any longer-term economic development benefits to Charlotte County.
“I don’t know that solar leads to any economic growth, because what economic growth requires is infrastructure, and specifically water and sewer, especially for big industry,” he said. “And we don’t have a lot of that.”
SolUnesco and the board of supervisors faced a handful of unsuccessful lawsuits over the project, and residents opposed to Randolph Solar have been vocal at local government meetings and on social media.
Hodsoll said he hasn’t been particularly surprised by the opposition.
“Whenever you have a large project like this, you’re going to have some people who I think are opposed to it, right?” he said. “Solar has become a bit of a flashpoint in Virginia, and there’s a lot of rumors and just bad information out there that scares people.”
Delays can be frustrating, he acknowledged. “But I am a strong believer that local governments should have the right to decide whether they want these projects or not,” he said. “And the role of the developer is to show the community how these projects can be beneficial.”
While the planning commission earlier had determined that SolUnesco project is in accord with the county’s comprehensive plan, county staff has recommended that the commission defer action on the permit until more questions can be answered.
A staff report prepared in advance of Tuesday’s meeting raised a number of concerns: about disturbances created during the years-long construction period, about SolUnesco’s development intentions regarding several conservation easements and cultural areas within the 21,000-acre site, about how the project would conform to the newly updated DEQ rules regarding stormwater runoff.
The report noted that the development is at odds with a limit set in the county’s zoning ordinance on the amount of land used by solar facilities within any given 5-mile radius within the county. While the board of supervisors gave itself the authority to override that limit, staff said it should only do so if a project is consistent with other criteria of a conditional use permit – and demonstrates “a compelling benefit to the County.”
The planning commission will decide after Tuesday night’s public hearing whether to recommend granting a conditional use permit for the project. The board of supervisors, which will have the final say on the matter, will not be bound by the commission’s recommendation.
Even if the county agrees to let the project move forward, it could face delays beyond local control. PJM Interconnection, which operates the electric grid in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia, including Virginia, has received so many interconnection requests from new solar and wind projects that it is considering delaying new applications for two years and is proposing a new process to handle projects that already have been submitted, the Bay Journal, which reports on environmental news in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, reported in February.
According to an analysis done earlier this year by Advanced Energy Economy, a trade group for energy businesses, all 2,274 projects waiting for an interconnection agreement in the PJM queue have been in limbo for a year or more. In Virginia alone, 332 projects totaling 32,000 megawatts await attention in the PJM queue, according to the AEE analysis.
Meanwhile, the work to understand how the state’s localities are responding to utility-scale solar continues.
At next week’s Virginia Solar Summit, Marshall and Berryhill will present the results of a survey that asked local planning officials about their city’s or county’s experiences with solar.
Last month, while the results were still being compiled, Marshall said one of the goals of the survey is to get a more comprehensive look at how many utility-scale solar projects are in the works around the state.
She said the data seemed to affirm what they’ve been hearing anecdotally: that localities in the eastern and southern parts of the state have been feeling a lot of pressure in terms of the number of applications for solar projects that they’ve been getting.
She said they’ve gotten the sense that localities across the board have reacted to solar growth by leaning on zoning tools and ordinance updates. While some localities address – or plan to address – solar in their long-range plans, smaller and more rural localities are far less likely to update their comprehensive plans to reflect energy planning, and she sees this as a signal that there may be a need to increase resources and planning support for those localities.
Another goal of the survey, she said, is to better understand what localities’ concerns are, so she can help them develop the tools to talk to residents and make decisions that are grounded in research.
“If that helps further the renewable energy transition, then that’s great,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean there’s a foregone conclusion on my part that every locality should be adopting really open policies.”
To some degree, Marshall said, every locality can participate in the transition to renewable energy. In some communities, utility-scale solar might make sense. In other places, rooftop solar or other distributed generation might be the best fit.
Lerch, of the Virginia Association of Counties, sees a host of issues that localities, and the state, will have to deal with in coming years. As the existing electric grid becomes congested, new long-distance transmission lines will need to be built, he said. Existing roads might not be sufficient to handle the kinds of heavy-duty truck traffic associated with solar farm construction. Stormwater concerns will continue. And as the first utility-scale battery storage facilities come on line, those projects will raise additional questions and regulatory concerns.
“We’re now starting to see the size of these projects rival what’s going out in the desert in California or Arizona or New Mexico,” he said. “But in Virginia, it’s such a different landscape. … So it’s just a different impact.”