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Siting Renewable Energy Projects in the Commonwealth of Virginia: Why State Law Implementation Remains Stalled at the Local Level



Compared to other regions, the Southeast’s vertically integrated utility business environment dampens project development interest from independent power producers.  However, a binding renewable energy statute sends a market signal to developers that the state is open for their business regardless of the utility environment. The passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) in 2020 did exactly that, especially the requirement that 35 percent of the renewable generating capacity must be privately owned (“in the public interest”) and purchased by the utility.


Two and a half years later, we should see substantial progress toward the VCEA goals, the most significant being a 100 percent clean grid by 2045, but a lot of renewable energy deployment remains stalled at the local level. There are escalating community challenges over land, energy, and politics. Demand for renewable energy remains high because of corporate customers like Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft - leaders in clean energy procurement and early investors in solar. 


This article explores the Commonwealth of Virginia’s VCEA and why in the face of a strong state mandate, local problems loom large for renewable energy deployment. We talked with developers, local officials, and others to learn more about their pain points. What are the community challenges with getting a renewable energy permit in this shifting environment, and as these problems grow what should developers do in response?


Community Challenges


Virginia requires a permit for any new solar facility with capacity greater than 5MW, but the process varies depending on the size. Solar projects between 5 and 150 MW follow the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Small Renewable Energy Projects Permit by Rule (PBR) and projects greater than 150 MW have a review by the State Corporation Commission (SCC). 


Regardless of project process, community challenges have fallen into two categories: (1) competing demands between solar and agriculture; and (2) a patchwork of ordinances at the local level for project development. Both are discussed in turn below. 

Balancing Solar with Agriculture: As of 2021, using the Virginia Statewide Land Cover Dataset, 58 percent of solar facilities in the Commonwealth have impacted farmland, and 25 percent forested land. But developers know that qualities of prime farmland are the same ones that make land suitable for solar facilities – ample sunlight, flat land, and access to a transmission network.


Balancing solar development with farmland preservation and forest land is a significant challenge for developers. 


Permit by Rule: If a project affects 50 or more acres of forested land or 10 or more acres of prime agricultural soils, developers must provide mitigation for those impacts. In 2022, DEQ convened an advisory panel to assist with developing regulations on ways to avoid damage to prime agricultural soil and forest caused by renewable energy solar projects. The group however failed to reach consensus on what it means to “disturb” land and “minimize” impact or the requirements for mitigation plans. Given the group’s inability to reach consensus on a host of issues, DEQ will perhaps reconvene the group. A final regulation is due by December 2024.


Projects Greater than 150MW: These projects must undergo review by the Virginia’s Utility Commission called State Corporation Commission (SCC). The SCC conducts a case-by-case review. This review is a more time-consuming and rigorous process, with a public notice and comment period and a requirement that projects get extensive approvals. Much of the community pushback for projects have been for these larger projects.


Patchwork of Local Ordinances: Currently, there is no statewide model solar ordinance nor overall guidance on siting utility scale solar projects. Solar projects are in many cases hundreds of acres, which pale in comparison to other states. Between June 2022 and May 2023, seven counties have put the brakes on solar development through restrictive ordinances or a moratorium (Charlotte, Culpeper, Franklin, Halifax, Page, Pittsylvania, and Shenandoah). For example, Pittsylvania County now prohibits solar facility construction within 5 miles of another and limits utility-scale solar projects to 2 percent of total acreage. Franklin County has imposed a countywide cap of 1,500 acres for all ground-mounted solar projects.


The table below outlines the ways some counties have responded to projects and comments by county leaders on the “why” these restrictions have been made

County

Regulatory Action

County Comments

Mecklenburg 

Henry

Louisa

Pittsylvania

Franklin

Culpepper

Hanover

Cap on Solar Acreage

  • Mecklenburg (2,325 acres)

  • Henry (2,445 acres)

  • Louisa (3 percent of total land)

  • Pittsylvania (2 percent total acreage of any zoning district)

  • Franklin (1,500 acres)

  • Culpepper (2,400 acres or 1 percent)

  • Hanover (1,000 acres)

Mecklenburg

“Without an acreage limitation, agricultural nature of the county would be diminished.” 

“Would ensure protection of streams and other waterbodies.”


“Serves notice to future applicants that prime farmland and timber protection are key parts of the tax base.”


Henry:

“Meant to minimize impact on viewshed, natural resources and rural character.”



Nottoway County

County cap for anything over what the county consumes.



Halifax County/

Shenandoah County


Halifax:

  • Siting restriction to no closer than 2,000 feet of any town boundary

Shenandoah

  • Solar panels cannot be any higher than 15 feet.

  • Limited to 50 acres for every mile of buffer



Clarke, Lunenburg, Caroline, Page, South Hampton Counties

Moratorium

Clarke: “Solar power plants degrades and endangers farms; we have to stop this now or in 10 years there will be no more farms in Clarke County”


Without farms, “we are not going to be able to eat in the future.”



Other Restrictions


In March 2022, solar became regulated as impervious surface much like parking lots and a memo from DEQ stated the new policy would go into effect immediately. This statewide action signaled a major policy shift and put another set of restrictions in place for renewable energy deployment at scale. Few other states have such a requirement.


Projects would need 20 percent more land if the panels — not just the support posts and beams — are counted as impervious surfaces. Without additional land to accommodate drainage, they would have to shrink the array footprint. Solar projects with interconnection approval secured by the end of 2024 would be exempt from the requirement. All other projects would have to comply.


The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has initiated a study examining the relationship between utility-scale photovoltaic arrays and stormwater runoff. But this stormwater requirement is much more onerous than what is required in other states.


Getting Solar Permits in the Face of Pushback


The significant uncertainty created by difficulties in siting and permitting make it difficult for developers to sign contracts with buyers and/or obtain financing at a reasonable cost of capital. So what are the options moving forward?


  • Going to Communities With a Clear Local Ordinance: Many local governments have not updated their local policies and ordinances to incorporate solar. Developers are better served by going to counties that have done that so there is much more certainty. A case in point: Louisa County just finished a very clear permitting process and updated their solar ordinance to include a maximum acreage for projects. At the very least, this new ordinance gives people information on what will impact them, even if the conclusions are arrived at arbitrarily.


  • Brownfields: Developers should consider siting solar facilities on brownfields because they already have infrastructure in place to connect with the electric grid and their potential contamination may make them less attractive for other uses. Furthermore these projects do not require the community pushback that greenfield projects seem to have.


  • Distributed Solar: One alternative to large installations on rural lands is the use of distributed solar in densely populated areas. Placing solar installations close energy load and transmission infrastructure offers potential energy cost savings for residents in addition to alleviating pressure in rural areas.


  • Early Engagement & Community Benefit Agreements: For community members who have concerns about renewable energy infrastructure being built near where they live, developers need early and regular engagement. Developers can also pursue community benefits agreements - contracts between developers and community groups - where community groups commit to project support in exchange for specific benefits that the developer provides the community. The benefits can be additional environmental remediation projects, workforce development or even local hiring requirements. 


Virginia is on the radar for renewable energy developers because of the VCEA. But local government chaos has halted development in many communities. Developers must think long and hard about where they pursue projects because pushback occurs. While public polling still suggests most Americans support these projects (see the Washington Post poll below and link below), challenges remain in the Commonwealth of Virginia.




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