Some of us are old enough to remember the Fifth Dimension classic that celebrated “this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” Others of us are young enough to find the song on Spotify. Some of us might be in some Venn diagram in the middle.
What is less well remembered is the rest of the song: “let the sunshine in,” lifted from the musical “Hair.” The song that dominated the charts in the spring of 1969 is considered a medley but it’s more of a mash-up between an incomplete song and a “borrowed” song that was then tinkered with.
It’s also a song that seems to go with the release last week of the first-ever Virginia Solar Survey, prepared by the Virginia Department of Energy and the Solar Initiative at the University of Virginia. Instead of the “dawning of the age of Aquarius,” it’s clear that we’re at the “dawning of the age of solar” in which Virginia is embracing, however fitfully, the spirit of “let the sunshine in.”
Megan Schnabel reported on the findings in our story “Virginia’s solar output doubles in a year.” Sarah Vogelsong of the Virginia Mercury also compiled her “Five takeaways from the landmark Virginia Solar Survey.”
Now it’s my turn to offer my takeaways, both from this report and other solar energy news, as viewed through the lens of the Southwest and Southside parts of the state that Cardinal News is set up to cover.
- This really is a big surge in solar. The Virginia Solar Survey documented how Virginia’s solar energy output more than doubled from 2020 to 2021. University of Virginia energy economist Bill Shobe, recently quoted on WVTF-FM, points out that Virginia was fourth in the nation last year in installing solar. This is a pretty dramatic result of a single piece of legislation. For anyone who thinks what happens in Richmond doesn’t matter, here’s a pretty powerful example to the contrary.
- Republican counties are feeling the impact of Democratic legislation. We’re seeing this surge of solar energy development as a direct result of the Clean Economy Act, the energy act that the General Assembly passed in 2020 to phase out fossil fuels and require the state’s two biggest utilities to go carbon-free – Dominion Energy by 2045, Appalachian Power by 2050. (This is where I deliver my customary disclosure that Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions. You can read the full list of our more than 1,100 donors and our policy; you can also be a donor and have no say, as well.) This was a Democratic bill and the impact of it is being felt most directly in two Republican-voting parts of the state. Southwest sees coal continue to decline (although much of the coal Dominion buys comes from outside Virginia so there’s not as direct a connection here as you might think. Still, the national transition away from fossil fuels has obviously been bad economically for Southwest). Meanwhile, Southside has seen a solar boom. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view. I’m fascinated by how the politics of solar don’t fit neatly onto a left-right spectrum. Some conservative landowners see solar as a godsend; this has brought in revenue they hadn’t expected. They’d never call this a Green New Deal, but it kind of is. Others have turned into environmentalists of a sort, warning against how solar eats up a lot of productive farmland, creates runoff problems and intrudes on viewsheds. Whatever the case, this much is clear: Virginia’s solar boom is concentrated in the Piedmont, from the North Carolina line to the outskirts of Northern Virginia, with emphasis on Southside. The legislators who represent those areas didn’t vote for this, but they’re getting it anyway.
- We’re going to see a lot more solar. The Clean Economy Act calls for 16,100 megawatts of solar and onshore wind. So far, Virginia doesn’t have any commercial wind farms. The Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for one in Botetourt County in 2017; it’s still not built, and faces new legal challenges. There are proposals for other wind farms in Pulaski County and Grayson County but until the one in Botetourt gets built, it’s hard to see any of the others getting built. The Botetourt site (on North Mountain north of Eagle Rock) seems to be in a sweet spot – it’s so far out of the way that few people would see it (although enough would that the project has generated some opposition). The Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy at James Madison University makes a good case for how the Blue Ridge could support a decent amount of wind energy, but “can” is not the same thing as “will.” If wind proves to be politically impractical in Virginia, then that means those 16,100 megawatts will all come from solar. So far, Virginia has 2,905 megawatts. That means to hit those Clean Economy Act targets, we need to add 5.5 times as much solar energy as we have now. How politically tenable is that? I ask because …
- Some localities are already feeling overwhelmed by solar. We’ve already seen some counties start to resist solar. Nottoway, Page and Shenandoah have enacted moratoriums. Augusta and Mecklenburg have restricted the size of utility-scale solar. Bedford simply killed a proposed ordinance that would set up rules for solar. (Megan Schnabel wrote about all this and more in her story “Is Virginia at a solar crossroads?”) It would help if solar skeptics weren’t so prone to conspiracy theories – I read all the weekly papers across Southside and I occasionally run across some wild talk that undermines their credibility. Filter that out, though, and one of the threads running through the Virginia Solar Survey is that some counties see solar farms as industrial facilities that are simply incompatible with the community’s rural character. That doesn’t seem an unreasonable concern. If they feel that now, how are they going to feel when there’s 5.5 times as much solar? Solar advocates may want to be mindful of this lest they trigger some backlash that has nothing to do with climate change denial and everything to do with land use. Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, recently sponsored a bill that requires the Virginia Cooperative Extension “to develop and maintain a map or repository of prime farmland in the Commonwealth” with an eye toward identifying where solar maybe shouldn’t go (and where it should). Some may see that as anti-solar, but solar advocates might actually find this useful if it avoids some nasty land-use battles. The legislature also passed another bill, with generally bipartisan support, that says any renewable energy project that takes more than 10 acres of “prime agricultural soils” or 50 acres of forest land “is deemed to be a significant adverse impact on natural resources” that requires a mitigation plan. The House vote on that bill, by Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier County, was fascinating, because the vote didn’t break along party lines — there were Republicans and Democrats on both sides of that measure, a sign of how ideologies sometimes get scrambled by these issues.
- We’re going to hear a lot more about the environmental downsides of solar. I mention this with much trepidation because I’d like to see more solar – getting our energy from the sun seems good for national security, if nothing else. However, we must be intellectually honest and acknowledge that there are downsides to every form of energy, it’s just a matter of what the trade-offs are. In the case of solar, it’s that recognition that solar “farms” are really more like solar “factories.” They’re not as simple as sticking some solar panels in the ground. Instead, sites get graded and soil gets compacted. At the Environment Virginia conference last month, Lee Daniels, a professor of environmental soil science at Virginia Tech, delivered a presentation on solar farms. He pointed out that when a solar installation has become obsolete (as all technology eventually does) and the solar panels are removed, returning that land to farmland will be “very difficult” because so much topsoil has been scraped away. The land might be used again for pasture or forestry but probably not for crops. Some have likened the future conversation of solar sites back to agricultural uses as being similar to returning former coal mines to other uses. Yikes. Now, given that one alternative is pumping even more carbon into the atmosphere, maybe that’s a trade-off we want to make or need to make. But maybe we should be more careful about which land we’re using for solar sites. Then again, we don’t seem to worry too much whenever someone wants to pave over some farmland to build a Walmart – and nobody worries about what happens when that Walmart becomes obsolete. We’ve all seen lots of dead malls.
- Solar advocates need to talk more about the economic development potential from solar. To get the full depth of anti-solar feeling in some parts of Southside, I’d encourage people to read the story “Solar Foes Prevail” in the Blackstone Courier-Record. Nottoway County is one of the counties with a solar moratorium. The paper quotes one local resident at a recent board of supervisors meeting saying that solar farms aren’t true economic development. “They will bring people in here to go build these things. And then they’re gonna leave, they might be two or three jobs left to cut the grass, but that’s gonna be it,” retired educator Dicky Ingram said. “There’s not gonna be any other jobs. So you’re taking big chunks of rural land, and creating places that there aren’t gonna be any jobs.” He’s not wrong. However, that’s not the whole picture. Those solar farms will generate tax revenue that might keep Ingram’s taxes low. Are there potential employers who will be attracted by the easy access to solar? It’s always hard to argue potential advantages when all people see are immediate disadvantages, but we need to look holistically here. We also have the instructive example of the coal counties of Southwest Virginia. They saw coal companies come in, mine the land and generate a lot of wealth – wealth that went somewhere else. How can we make sure that the solar industry doesn’t do the same in Southside?
- Southwest Virginia is almost completely left out of the solar boom. Some may consider that a good thing. Others may see it as inevitable. Southside is a solar magnet because the land is relatively flat and relatively cheap. Southwest flunks the first test. Still, the sun does shine there, the last time I checked. And the report points out that there’s official interest in developing solar energy in Southwest, from the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Program, the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, and Virginia Energy’s recent “Reenergize Southwest” report. Last fall, Dominion Energy and the Nature Conservancy – two entities not usually thought of in the same sentence – announced they were joining together to develop 1,200 acres of former coal mines in Wise and Dickenson counties into a 50-megawatt solar farm. Some have sketched out a vision of turning those “brownfields” of abandoned coal mines into “brightfields” of solar farms. If we’re concerned about using too much farmland in Southside and the Shenandoah Valley for solar, then maybe building on all those abandoned mines in Southwest is the perfect answer. This is land that’s already been compacted. This report doesn’t get into that; it just documents how there’s no utility-scale solar in Southwest Virginia right now. The General Assembly passed a measure in 2021 to offer grants for renewable energy projects on former coal mines — Kilgore was the sponsor. However, the Virginia Mercury reports that it hasn’t been funded yet, although discussions now now begun “in earnest” about how to do so. Given some of Southwest Virginia’s other interests – attracting data centers and other technology firms, many of which insist on renewable energy – this seems a missed opportunity so far. However, the Mercury also quotes one panelist at last week’s Virginia Solar Summit as saying there probably aren’t enough “brownfields,” in coal country or elsewhere, to provide the numbers required. Still, they could be part of the solution, and help relieve the pressure on prime farmland.
- Rooftop solar is booming but still relatively small. There’s utility-scale solar – big solar farms. Then there’s “distributed solar,” which I’ll shorthand as rooftop solar. This is somewhat simplified but you get the idea. The amount of rooftop solar in Virginia has more than doubled in the past two years; it’s 27.6 times more than it was just a decade ago. The trendline is going up sharply, so we can expect to see a lot more rooftop solar. However, it’s still a relatively small percentage of the total solar output – about 11.7%. If we start seeing more political pushback to large-scale solar in rural areas, one solution is to promote more rooftop solar – although it takes a lot of rooftop to make up for one big solar farm. Still, there’s clearly room for growth here. When I was in Australia in 2018, I was struck by two things. One, Australians seem to put beets on everything. Order a cheeseburger and you’ll get a beet plopped on it just like we expect lettuce and tomato. Two, just about every suburban home I saw around Melbourne had solar panels. Turns out that one in four homes in Australia is now said to have solar panels, according to Australia’s National Science Agency. The town of Yackandandah, Australia, has vowed to be 100% solar by the end of this year. Clearly I need a fact-finding trip to Yackandandah to find out how things are going, right?
I wrote recently that if Virginia is going to enable construction of a football stadium for the Washington Commanders football team then it should require rooftop solar on the retractable dome that’s being contemplated. I wasn’t joking. Maybe that’s not feasible from an engineering standpoint – I’ve never designed a domed stadium – but the point is that there are lots of impervious surfaces around that could take solar. (All those dead malls I mentioned earlier.) And that brings us to …
- Virginia localities are missing an opportunity for cheap energy. The report notes that only 32 of the 109 localities that responded to the survey plan to procure some of the solar energy produced in their county for their own needs. Why isn’t it 109 of 109? Every locality that’s looking at building a school ought to be requiring solar panels on the roof – not because that’s good for the environment (even though it is) but because it’s good for the county’s bottom line. That’s almost free energy. Schools in Middlesex County, over near the Chesapeake Bay, that have gone solar are now producing 100% of their energy from the sun. In North Carolina, some schools are producing more energy than they consume – the excess gets sold into the power grid. Halifax County is about to build a new high school; that ought to be a solar school. Any new school ought to be a solar school. Taxpayers should be demanding this.
- Solar is still relatively small overall. Despite the exponential growth in solar, we need to keep this in mind: Renewables currently count for just 2% of Dominion’s load. Appalachian is just now getting into solar so it doesn’t even show up in the company’s last report on energy mix. Clean Technica reports that Virginia gets just 1.2% of its energy from the sun. By contrast, California gets 22.2% of its energy from solar (although on Saturday, California generated two-thirds of its power from solar as the state hit a record of 99.87% of its power coming from renewables, according to the state’s grid operator). Coming in next are Massachusetts 17.4%, Nevada and Vermont 15.3%, Hawaii 14.3%. (So much for the argument that solar only works in Sunbelt states, if Massachusetts and Vermont are so reliant on the sun.) All those states qualify as global leaders. Around the world, the country whose electric grid has the biggest percentage of solar power is Japan, where 3.59% of the nation’s power is solar, according to Solar Power Guide, followed by Italy at 3.4%, Chile at 3.39%, Germany at 3.32% and Greece at 3.08%. Australia, where I saw all those solar-powered houses, comes in sixth at 2.5%. The United States ranks 27th, at 1.02%. Obviously the question with all these numbers is: How big can solar be?
More context: The country that produces the most solar power in the world is China, which produced 205 gigawatts of solar in 2019 compared to 76 gigawatts for the United States, according to the International Energy Agency. The sheer size of the Chinese economy is so big that it is simultaneously both the world’s biggest solar generator and its biggest coal burner, so China can stand as an example for whichever argument you want to make.
11. Solar is now bigger in Virginia than coal. Shobe, the University of Virginia energy economist, points out that last year Virginia generated more power from solar than from coal. This was the first year that happened. How is this possible, you might wonder, since Appalachian’s power grid is 64% coal? The answer lies in where that power is generated. Appalachian no longer has any coal-fired plants in Virginia; its coal-fired energy comes from outside the state. Shobe expects those trend lines to further diverge this year and in the years to come. “We are expecting quite a lot of solar to come online this year,” he says.
12. Virginia localities are missing an opportunity to achieve some other environmental goals. Some of the more curious parts of the report are tucked away in the appendix. What requirements do localities impose on solar farms? This one caught my eye: Three of the 81 localities that answered this question said they require beehives be installed on solar farms. Hmm … This would seem a great opportunity to promote more pollinators of all kinds. Why isn’t our apiary lobby demanding that beehives be part of every solar installation? We’re told that to save the monarch butterfly from extinction we need to plant more milkweed. Here’s an easy opportunity. OK, these are small things but they are also easy things and good things. We require shopping malls to put in a certain number of trees in their parking lots; why aren’t we requiring solar farms to put in pollinators?
The moon may or may not be in the seventh house, as the song tells us, but we could at least have beehives at all these solar farms. Virginia ranks just 36th in the country for honey production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We often look to North Carolina for comparisons. Here we once again come up short: North Carolina produces almost twice as much honey as Virginia does. Ditto, Tennessee. At the same time that solar is taking some farmland out of production, it also presents an opportunity to expand a particular agricultural niche. Solar won’t make us the land of milk and honey but it could make us the land of half of that. Best of all, bees still work on cloudy days when solar panels don’t.