Once upon a time, there were no coal mines in Southwest Virginia, or anywhere in Appalachia. We all know what happened once mining began. Vast amounts of coal – and wealth – were extracted from the region but did not necessarily leave much wealth behind. Somebody somewhere got rich – the nation’s industrial might was powered by coal – but coal counties are now among the poorest in the land. Why is this?
Now, across Southside, we see another energy boom taking place as solar farms spring up. I looked yesterday at how, in many tobacco-growing counties, solar acres now outnumber tobacco acres – or soon will.
The question today is what that means economically, not just for individual landowners but for the region as a whole: Is there a way for Southside (or other solar regions) to avoid what happened in Appalachia? Is there a way for Southside to, in effect, share in the solar wealth that’s being created?
A socialist might answer that question one way. How might a free marketer?
First, we need to understand the differences between the two regional experiences. Coal created jobs for miners – good-paying jobs, too, which is something many outside the region don’t fully understand. The challenge of replacing coal jobs isn’t simply about replacing jobs; it’s about replacing them with comparably paying jobs, which are much harder to come by. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists wages for mine jobs from $46,470 for machine operators in surface mines to $103,510 for health and safety inspectors. The current median household income in Virginia’s coal counties ranges from $29,932 in Dickenson County to $42,099 in Tazewell County. Those numbers right there illustrate the central challenge in building a new economy in coal country. Coal created a lot of good-paying jobs.
Solar, though, is quite different. After the initial construction, there aren’t a lot of jobs associated with solar farms. There are jobs in the solar industry overall, and it’s one of the fastest-growing job sectors around (9.2% growth in 2021), but those jobs are typically on the construction/installation side, be they utility-scale solar farms or residentials arrays. Of the 255,037 people who work in solar energy nationwide, about two-thirds of those – 168,960 – are in installation-related jobs, according to the Solar Jobs Census produced by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Only about 5% are in operations and maintenance. Dominion Energy says that its solar farms typically employ five to 10 people. “That includes operations, maintenance, vegetation management, safety and environmental inspections, etc.,” says spokesman Aaron Ruby. (The usual disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You, too, can be one of our 1,300-plus donors and have no say in news decisions. Here’s how.)
Now, the impact of installation jobs isn’t to be discounted, and there sure seems to be enough solar demand that these installation jobs may not be as transitory as they might seem – keep in mind we’re not just talking installing utility-scale arrays but “distributed” solar systems on homes and businesses. Only 20% of the solar installation jobs in the country are for utility-scale solar, the rest are for residential (51%), commercial (20%) and community solar operations (9%). Solar installation seems like a really good career to get into – 46% of all new energy generation created last year was in solar, followed by wind at 44% – but that’s not necessarily directly related to the boom in solar farms across Southside.
The real question I’m trying to get at is whether all these solar farms across Southside can translate into something else. More to the point, will they help create other jobs in the region? Or, I guess more accurately, can they?
This is a more difficult question to answer.
Solar farms do have economic benefits beyond producing cheap, clean energy for the nation’s power grid. They do generate income for landowners who lease their property and they generate tax revenues for rural local governments that often have few other sources of revenue. Whether those benefits outweigh what critics see as the industrialization of the countryside is a different matter – that’s more of a value judgment that you can debate somewhere else. I’m just trying to deal with what is rather than what should be.
So I’ll ask again, in a different way: Do solar farms make it more likely that a locality can attract certain types of employers? There may be some evidence of this somewhere but I have not been able to find any literature on it. The challenge, of course, is that once power is fed into the power grid it can go anywhere. I’m greatly simplifying electrical generation here, of course, but you get the idea. Case in point: Back in the spring, Amazon announced it planned to build solar farms in Frederick and Pittsylvania counties, but that’s not where Amazon’s Web Services operations are.
A reader in Henry County, who is not a fan of solar, recently asked me why these solar farm operators don’t build closer to the companies that are most demanding of solar, such as all those data centers in Northern Virginia. The answer: The land in Southside is a lot cheaper than the land in Northern Virginia. That, though, raises a different question, in reverse, one that I’ve posed before: Why don’t more of those data centers locate in Southside (or Southwest), both places where some communities have slashed their tax rates in a bid to attract those operations?
That answer that I got before, from Josh Levi, who heads the Data Center Coalition, is that many data centers need to be in Northern Virginia because that’s where the fattest, fastest fiber connections are. (Again, I’m simplifying.) Some data centers that might be content with slower connections could be in rural Virginia, but not all. Nonetheless, there does seem an opportunity for rural Virginia to make another run at data centers. Dominion Energy stunned some in Northern Virginia recently when it warned that it may not be able to serve new data centers in Ashburn because the high-voltage lines it has there now can’t handle any more power. I have no inside information but I feel certain that problem will get worked out – the utility wants to sell power, here are customers who want to buy it. Everything in between is just details, just sometimes controversial ones. Still, might this not be a talking point for some Southside pitch?
Meanwhile, Prince William County continues to be roiled by data center proposals and how much of the county should be given over to them. We even have this unusual political alignment: The county’s Republican committee recently adopted a resolution opposing data centers in the county’s so-called “rural crescent.” The Republicans say in a statement: “The Prince William County Republican Committee is proud to add its voice to environmental groups and other concerned citizens in opposing this rush to irreversibly change the landscape and nature of Prince William County. We will oppose this effort by the Democrats on the Board of Supervisors, if they insist on proceeding with this, we promise to make this an issue in 2023 when all county supervisors are up for election.”
So yes, here we have Democrats keen to pave over greenery so that somebody somewhere can make a buck and Republicans throwing themselves in front of bulldozers (figuratively) to be on the side of the environment. I just had to check my calculator to make sure two plus two isn’t adding up to five. Of course, a lot of Republicans live in that “rural crescent” so maybe this is just high-minded talk to mask a typical not-in-my-backyard kind of opposition. Nonetheless, this seems like something that rural localities downstate might be able to latch onto. Here we have Republicans in Prince William County who don’t want data centers; we have Republican-voting counties across Southside and Southwest that are desperate for economic development, some of which have specifically cited data centers as something they want. Can’t we work out some sort of deal? True, not all these data centers would work here but this still seems a good opportunity for the pro-data center communities in Southwest and Southside to make their pitch for whatever we can get. The fact that Southside is developing solar farms doesn’t directly factor into it but indirectly might – a utility might not have to string many miles of high-voltage lines to get from one to the other.That seems the most obvious way that all these solar farms can turn into other forms of economic development – although, to be fair, data centers don’t generate a lot of jobs, either, but they do generate a lot of tax revenue, and even a small number of high-wage jobs in a rural community can make a big difference. However, there seems no guarantee that solar farms will ever generate other economic development nearby, or that data centers will cluster near their sources of energy. Case in point: Amazon has more than 50 data centers in Northern Virginia, but its solar farms are mostly scattered across the southern part of the state. We’re up against both the labor pool for data center workers, which is concentrated in Northern Virginia, and the physics of the power grid, which allows electrons to go wherever.