As localities across Virginia debate whether to welcome large-scale solar facilities into their backyards, a new survey provides data to back up what some of them already knew: The state has seen a boom in solar electricity generation over the last six years, with much of it concentrated in Central and Southside Virginia.
According to the Virginia Solar Survey, over the last six years the state saw more than 50 utility-scale solar facilities start generating power. Over the same period, the state added 23,000 distributed solar installations, such as the arrays of panels seen on building rooftops.
But those are just the facilities that are in operation. The 109 localites that responded to the survey (out of 133 in the state) said they have reviewed a total of 279 applications for what the survey identified as large-scale solar facilities.
Of those, 148 were for utility-scale projects of 5 megawatts and larger; 106 of those were approved at the local level. The remaining 131 were for smaller community-scale projects, from 500 kilowatts to 5 megawatts; 76 of those were approved. The survey doesn’t indicate how many of those projects have received required state approval.
Much of the interest from solar developers has been focused on Southside and Central Virginia, thanks in part to its gently rolling terrain and large swaths of affordable land. Together, those two regions received 61% of all large-scale solar applications, the survey found.
In the U.S., large solar farms were once found mostly out West, where thousands of acres of sunny land were readily available. But as demand for carbon-neutral power sources has surged among Fortune 500 companies and those that run electricity-hungry data centers, solar developers have flocked to the East Coast.
In Virginia, the rush to build solar has been spurred on by a number of General Assembly actions, including the creation of incentives both for developers and for localities.
A big push was the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which set energy goals for the state, including a mandate that Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co. generate 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045 and 2050, respectively. The act set a target of 16,100 megawatts of solar and onshore wind power for the state. (Dominion is one of donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy).
At the end of 2015, Virginia had no active utility-scale solar installations and about 3,000 distributed solar installations, the survey authors reported. By the end of 2021, there were 51 active utility-scale solar facilities with a total capacity of 2,657 megawatts and approximately 26,000 distributed solar installations with a total capacity of 248 megawatts. The total electricity generated by Virginia’s solar projects more than doubled from 2020 to 2021.
Localities have responded in a number of ways to the influx of applications for large-scale solar projects, which can take up thousands of acres of former farm and forest land and have sparked debate about land-use priorities and economic development opportunities. Some localities have instituted moratoriums on new utility-scale solar. Others have updated their zoning ordinances or comprehensive plans to establish guidelines for new projects. Still others have declined to address the issue at all.
(Read our previous coverage of the debate over solar farms here.)
Many of the same localities that said they’ve received applications for large-scale solar facilities also said that they’re addressing their solar policies, regulations or permitting processes, the survey found. It found that 77% of localities in Southside and 74% of localities in Central Virginia have updated, or are currently updating, how they deal with solar projects. That compares to a statewide total of 61%.
Statewide, 28% of localities said that their comprehensive plans – which guide long-term visions and goals – specifically address renewable energy. Another 13% said they were in the process of adding content about renewable energy. But 28% said they have no plans to address renewable energy in their long-range plans.
And while much of the debate about utility-scale solar facilities has centered around questions of land use, only 16.5% of respondents said that their comprehensive plans already identify specific types of land that would be suitable for large-scale solar development. Only seven localities said that their comprehensive plans recommend siting solar projects on previously disturbed land like brownfields.
The Virginia Solar Survey, a project of Virginia Energy and the Virginia Solar Initiative at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, was launched as a response to the growth of solar – and to the lack of comprehensive and reliable sources of information about the state of solar in localities across Virginia.
While the state knows how many utility-scale solar installations are currently in operation, a reliable tally of potential projects has been elusive, as early decisions about those projects are made at the local level. There’s also a need to consolidate information about how localities are approaching the growth of distributed solar and solar storage, the survey authors said.
The authors said they wanted to better understand how prepared localites are to deal with the influx of solar, and what their concerns are.
The survey stakeholder group also included representatives from the Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Association of Planning District Commission, SolSmart and the Berkley Group.