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Virginia Mercury: One Year After Clean Economy Act’s Passage, Solar Land Use Tensions Linger

Posted by Sarah Vogelsong on Feb 1, 2021

Virginia Mercury reported on proposed bills addressing land use issues as more solar projects are considered under the new Virginia Clean Economy Act, quoting AEE's Harry Godfrey. Read excerpts below and the full piece here.

Spotsylvania County: 6,350. Fauquier County: 3,500. King William County: 1,262. Each number recited by Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, to a House panel during the second week of the 2021 General Assembly session represented the number of acres that local governments in Virginia have approved for solar projects to date. 

To some, the tallies are a point of pride for a state that until recently solar developers saw as one of the toughest markets on the East Coast. To others, they are nothing short of a threat to a way of life that centers on agriculture and timber… 

Over the past five years, tensions in Virginia between renewables and other environmental goals like conservation have been growing. Falling solar prices and a growing policy push away from fossil fuels linked to climate change led to an explosion of project proposals across the state’s more rural areas beginning around 2018, with particularly high-profile fights over solar farms in wealthier counties like Spotsylvania and Culpeper… 

Then in 2020 came the Democrat-driven Virginia Clean Economy Act, a landmark environmental bill that calls for the decarbonization of the state’s power grid by 2050, partly through the development of almost 17,000 megawatts of solar. 

The law, while building on a solar boom already underway, locked in a market for solar. It also, by committing the state to dedicating hundreds of thousands of acres to arrays, sparked unease among many rural communities, where the combination of large tracts of cheap land and access to transmission lines ensures the bulk of these projects will be sited...

Harry Godfrey, executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, one of the main architects of the Clean Economy Act, told the Mercury that he “understand(s) that there are people of good faith that have only legitimate concerns around land use.”

“The challenge that we face is that all too often we’ve seen other actors employ those issues as a cudgel to thwart advanced energy development, regardless of its merits,” he said. “At times it can be hard to distinguish between the two...”

“The approval of large solar arrays starts on the local level, and that is largely where the decision making around finding a balance between clean energy and land conservation occurs,” Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam, wrote in an email. 

And while state permits, whether from DEQ or the SCC, provide another layer of scrutiny for projects, they don’t trump local ones: developers must seek both. 

The more streamlined permit by rule process has incentivized most of these developers to keep their solar farms under 150 megawatts, leaving only the largest proposals in the SCC’s hands...

Read the full story here.

Topics: AEE In The News