We are in the midst of a renewable energy transition — increasing our use of solar, wind and battery storage for our electricity grid while moving us away from an energy system that is doing active harm to the health of low-income and minority communities. It is crucial if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Moreover, this transition means cleaner air, cheaper energy bills, and new economic development opportunities.
Rural counties in Virginia are in an excellent position to lead this transition, especially with respect to solar energy. However, communities must be in the driver’s seat and well equipped to take advantage of and manage the many utility-scale solar proposals being offered. And we need thoughtful and engaged project developers to support them.
Three years ago, the Virginia Clean Economy Act established the commonwealth as the first southern state on a path to a reliable, affordable, zero-carbon electricity grid by 2050.
As a commonwealth, we should be doing everything imaginable to increase the installed amount of rooftop and community solar — that cuts down on the amount of utility-scale electricity we must produce. But of course, no matter how we do the math, utility-scale solar must play a central role in Virginia’s clean energy transition. The fact is, it is one of the cheapest sources of energy, especially on large tracts of flat land. Unfortunately, it is these large systems that are causing concern at the local level.
We’ve seen some rural counties push back against solar development by placing moratoriums on new utility-scale applications until they have updated their solar ordinances. Others have placed restrictive caps on the amount of solar permitted in the county. If this trend continues, the costs of our clean energy transition will rise for all Virginians. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Many of these counties’ concerns are valid and heard loud and clear. However, progress never comes without tough decisions. These projects will sometimes impact forests and agricultural areas. But unlike our existing energy infrastructure, which continues to disproportionately affect the health of people of color like me, these utility-scale projects will not emit powerful greenhouse gases or particulate matter that is especially damaging to communities with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
Virginia has enough land to meet our renewable energy goals, conserve key natural areas such as forest habitats and wetlands, and support our No. 1 industry — agriculture.
To effectively realize this, Virginia’s energy policy should prioritize siting utility-scale solar projects on already disturbed lands and the built environment: places like brownfields, former coal mines, highway medians, warehouses, big box stores, and parking decks.
The Inflation Reduction Act contains stackable tax credits that add up to huge incentives for these projects. All solar projects are eligible for an investment tax credit (ITC) of 30% of the project’s cost. On top of that, solar projects in “energy communities” like those with brownfields or former coal mines can receive an additional 10% bonus ITC and solar projects in low-income communities are eligible for another 10-20% ITC. Some solar projects will be able to take advantage of other credits as well. These tax credits should mean that the kinds of solar projects that solar developers keep telling us just don’t pencil out, could now.
How about projects that can’t be sited on these previously disturbed lands? For projects under 150 MW that are sited on forest lands or prime agricultural soils, the Department of Environmental Quality is conducting a rulemaking that will dictate what types of mitigation efforts developers must pursue when siting projects on these important resources. That rulemaking will dictate how DEQ will evaluate these projects, and it should also be a helpful resource to the State Corporation Commission when it considers projects over 150 MW through its certificate of public convenience and necessity process.
So, how do we balance the need for low-cost renewables with the need to protect vital natural resources, all while ensuring that these utility-scale projects benefit communities?
The way forward requires placing community members at the table with solar developers. Development of these utility-scale systems cannot make the same mistakes the fossil fuel industry has made and continues to make. That industry, almost like clockwork, sited the most harmful energy infrastructure in poor and minority communities, often making promises of jobs and economic changes that never materialized.
Developers of utility-scale solar can, and must, be better. And counties in Virginia have the power to make sure they do. A commonly used tool for utility-scale projects are siting agreements. Siting agreements can require developers to mitigate the impacts of projects. In addition, developers can help the locality meet other needs, such as deploying broadband and providing funds for needs set out in the locality’s capital improvement plan, fiscal budget, or fiscal fund balance policy. If that sounds like a powerful tool, it is. Counties have received considerable sums of money from solar developers in the form of one-time payments or revenue sharing agreements. These projects also generate significantly more tax revenue for the county than most prior land uses.
As powerful as siting agreements may be, they may not be enough if a locality’s fiscal plans do not address the specific impacts of these utility-scale projects.
One reason counties give for rejecting utility-scale solar is that they just do not have the resources to properly vet these utility-scale proposals. When possible, they can prepare for this by adjusting fiscal plans to earmark a percentage of funds received through siting agreements to fund a qualified, full-time employee to help evaluate proposals.
These areas can also utilize community benefits agreements. CBAs are contracts between developers and community groups, where community groups commit to supporting a project in exchange for the specific benefits that the developer will bring to the community. The benefits can be additional environmental remediation projects, workforce development or even local hiring requirements. The beauty of CBAs lies in their flexibility.
Rural counties are in an excellent position to help steer the renewable energy transition. Instead of reacting to these utility scale proposals with moratoriums and restrictive caps, these counties should use siting agreements, CBAs and other creative solutions to mitigate the impacts of these projects and get to “yes.” Our clean energy transition depends on it.
Josephus Allmond is a senior associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, where he helps lead the Virginia office’s solar and environmental justice work.