Solar panels in Pittsylvania County. The county earlier this year implemented a cap on future solar projects but already has signed off on at least 20,000 acres of solar development. Photo by Matt Busse.

As Virginia localities continue to receive applications from companies seeking to build new solar power plants, several Southside local governments are tapping the brakes with new rules aimed at capping how much land can be used for solar development.

Large, utility-scale solar farms that provide electricity to the power grid can share millions of dollars in annual revenue with localities for schools and other vital budget items, while community solar facilities directly provide electricity to the residents and businesses who own them, lowering their utility bills. Proponents of selling or leasing land for solar development have called it a fundamental property right and a boon to farmers seeking new sources of income.

Others have expressed concern about solar facilities’ impact on available agricultural and forestry land, property values, scenic views and the environment — particularly in regard to stormwater quality and soil erosion. Such opposition has led a number of localities to consider or approve caps on how much of a county’s land will be allotted for solar. 

“What you’re seeing is, in a lot of instances, they’ve already approved quite a bit of solar, and so they’re saying, OK, how much more can we take before it starts having an impact on the community, on preserving farm and forest land?” said Joe Lerch, director of local government policy for the Virginia Association of Counties, which represents counties in legislative and regulatory matters at the state and national levels.

Since Virginia’s solar push kicked off in earnest with the 2016 debut of Amazon’s 80-megawatt facility in Accomack County, Southside Virginia’s abundance of relatively flat, relatively inexpensive available land has attracted developers.

But as solar proposals began crossing the desks of county planners and supervisors, many officials realized that their regulations and long-range plans needed updates to address renewable energy. Capping the amount of land that can be used for solar development is among the latest kinds of regulation being considered, and since March of this year, Henry, Mecklenburg and Pittsylvania counties have adopted such caps.

Henry County’s limit of 1%, or 2,445 acres, of the county’s land mass still leaves more than 500 acres for future projects. The county so far has one solar facility up and running and another under construction, and 10 others that have been approved, according to county spokesperson Brandon Martin.

The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors voted 6-3 this past summer to approve a cap of 2,325 acres, or less than 1% of the county’s land. The county’s planning commission had recommended the cap, citing concerns about preserving the county’s “agricultural nature.”

“The overwhelming majority of the people I represent and throughout the county don’t want these projects in their county or in their backyard,” Supervisor David Brankley said during the board’s July 10 meeting, after noting that two solar projects of 1,000 acres were already built and another project of more than 400 acres was under construction.

Supervisors in Pittsylvania County — which, at more than 620,000 acres, is Virginia’s largest locality by size — in March voted unanimously to cap utility-scale solar development at 2% of the total acreage within a single zoning district and to require that any new facility must be at least 5 miles from another utility-scale facility.

Pittsylvania County has signed off on at least 20,000 acres of solar development, including a 1,555-acre project that was approved just a week before supervisors voted for the land cap, according to the Chatham Star-Tribune newspaper.

Before their vote, multiple supervisors thanked residents who appeared at a public hearing to speak out against new solar development.

Supervisor Bob Warren, who said he had advocated for solar projects in the past but opposed further ones, said of the projects already approved that the county has “got to deal with them and live with them.”

“We’ve just got to make them the best we possibly can,” Warren said. “But I’m going to support what it takes to eliminate and make sure we can’t get any more.”

Charlotte County officials have been discussing a cap of somewhere between 3% and 5% of the county’s more than 300,000 acres of land but so far have decided not to implement one. At a meeting last month, county planning commissioners reached an unofficial consensus that no cap was needed yet, although they agreed to revisit the idea each year.

The county has already approved solar applications totaling 7,800 acres, the vast majority of which is claimed by six utility-scale projects.

“We’ve got space in this county to accommodate solar. So let’s paint the picture that we want our landowners to get engaged if they want to,” said planning commissioner Cornell Goldman, who said having a land cap in place could deter property owners and developers from pursuing new projects.

In Lunenburg County, supervisors have instructed the county to stop accepting permit applications for new solar projects until officials can study what, if any, changes they want to make to local planning regulations. The county has no solar facilities up and running, although it has two utility-scale projects and one community solar project in various stages of development and has received a number of other applications.

“There is not a designated timeframe for the ‘pause’ on the acceptance of solar applications,” County Administrator Tracy Gee said.

Virginia law encourages the development of solar power as the commonwealth’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, move toward goals of carbon-free energy portfolios by 2045 and 2050, respectively.

The state has nearly 4,400 megawatts of active solar facilities, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group, which says its data is current through the second quarter of this year. While that’s enough to power nearly 520,000 homes, solar energy only provides about 6% of Virginia’s energy, according to the SEIA.

Natural gas and nuclear power sources make up nearly 90% of Virginia’s energy portfolio, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But solar proposals continue to come in. On Oct. 4, Dominion Energy announced it plans to add nearly 800 megawatts of new solar power in Virginia. Included in that would be facilities of 3 megawatts in Brunswick County, 95 megawatts in Pittsylvania County and 50 megawatts in Henry and Pittsylvania counties.

If the State Corporation Commission approves all of the new projects, Dominion would have about 4,600 megawatts of solar either in operation or approved by the SCC, said Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby.

[Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

Appalachian Power — the state’s second-largest electric utility and the main provider in Southwest and Southside Virginia — owns one solar farm; most of its solar power comes from other companies’ facilities through power purchase agreements. State regulators recently signed off on Apco’s plan to enter into six new PPAs totaling 184 megawatts, plus renegotiate a PPA of 20 megawatts.

The largest solar facility in the works in Virginia is Dominion’s 800-megawatt Randolph Solar project in Charlotte County, which would be composed of 4,500 acres of fenced-in solar panels plus thousands more acres of buffers and preserved land.

Reserving those thousands of additional acres, but not actually covering them with panels, is one way that Dominion is working to minimize the impacts of solar facilities on neighboring properties, Ruby said.

“Just as communities are learning about solar, we as the developer are also improving how we build solar,” he said.

Ruby said the Randolph Solar project has received local approval but has yet to be submitted for consideration by the State Corporation Commission and is at least a couple of years away from construction, assuming it’s approved.

Francis Hodsoll, CEO of SolUnesco, the company developing the project for Dominion, has said Randolph Solar would bring $600 million in revenue to Charlotte County over 50 years.

Ruby said that if Dominion builds out the approximately 16,000 megawatts of solar production required by the Virginia Clean Economy Act over the next 15 years, it would impact about 160,000 acres, which he said is less than 1.5% of Virginia’s prime farm and forest land.

“That’s a reasonable tradeoff,” Ruby said.

Erich Fritz, Dominion’s manager of solar development in Virginia, said localities adopting land caps won’t hinder Dominion from meeting its clean energy goals.

But, he said, a land cap could have unintended consequences if it creates a rush to get a project in before the locality hits its limit. Counties might not see the best projects — just those that are brought to the table first, he said.

“By putting that cap on, you take away, to a certain extent, the county’s ability to review projects on their own merit,” Fritz said. “Not all projects are the same.”

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...