EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is penned as commentary and is listed in our EDITORIAL section.
By Randy Arrington, publisher
“It’s not complex,” Urban Grid’s Chip Dicks told the Page County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 21 regarding new state legislation on solar siting agreements. Well, we would argue, neither is poker — there are only 10 different hands to learn in the game. But poker is as much about the betting as it is the cards, from the little “tells” of your opponents to how you manage your chips.
Of course solar siting agreements are “not complex” to Mr. Dicks, he acknowledged to the board that he had helped write the new law and was now representing a solar developer in explaining the implications of the county getting involved in such an agreement. Local lawmakers (and citizens) are much less familiar with the brand new process, and they fear it may open the door for “legal bribes.”
Mr. Dicks did not mislead the board. In some ways the process is simple — or at least as simple as saying “yes” or “no” to a long-term, multi-million dollar deal that could change the nature of the landscape and the county’s identity can be. But the devil is in the details, and the developer’s goals are not always the same as the governing body they seek approval from.
The idea behind solar site agreements is similar to that of proffers in other types of development. Proffers for a housing development, for example, may be directly aimed at mitigating the impacts of an influx of new residents with money paid by the developer earmarked specifically for police, fire and rescue, or schools. However, funds offered by a developer through a solar siting agreement can be used for a wider range of services or needs, such as broadband.
If the Cape Solar project submitted by Urban Grid in December 2020 moves forward, a solar siting agreement would be separate from, and follow, the special use permit process. The county could still set specific restrictions on the project through the special use permit. Two separate public hearings would be required.
When the General Assembly adopted the new legislation last year, it received rare unanimous, bi-partisan approval because it was deemed to be a win for localities by giving them a greater opportunity to capitalize on growing solar development. However, opponents see it as opening the door for solar developers to wave money in front of local lawmakers.
With the central argument over solar facilities in most localities focusing on size, it seems that the developer’s newly allowed ability to offer cash compensation for a favorable vote may weaken local government’s resistance to give up the diminishing commodity of open farmland. While few people argue with rooftop panels on buildings, fields and fields of solar panels covering thousands of acres is a less palatable notion for most rural areas — especially those areas like Page County, where natural resources and scenic beauty drive millions of dollars in tourism annually.
And then there are areas where they rely less on their natural surroundings — no national park or Skyline Drive — and the money becomes even more tempting for local officials.
Consider the situation in Charlotte County, Virginia. This rural landscape of rolling hillsides, abundant farmland and thick woodlands was the final home and resting place of Patrick Henry, who vowed his home Red Hill sat in the “garden spot of the world.”
On Oct. 11, the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors supported the Sept. 28 recommendation of the county’s planning commission and approved a conditional use permit to allow nearly 21,000 acres be designated for a solar project containing 5,800 buildable acres earmarked for about one million solar panels.
The Randolph Solar project would combine three smaller operations for a total output of 800 megawatts — enough to power 127,000 homes. Randolph Solar will also become Charlotte County’s largest taxpayer, promising some $1.5 million in the first year of operations and $113.7 million over an assumed 50-year lifespan. However, the project would also span 32 square miles and consume 6.5 percent of all the land in Charlotte County.
Once the $700 million project is built out in 2023, Randolph Solar will be one of the largest solar farms in Virginia and the U.S. Currently plans for the largest solar farm in the state rest in Spotsylvania County, where AES Corp — the seventh largest solar company in the world — is planning a 6,350-acre solar farm that will ultimately reach an output of 484 megawatts through 1.8 million solar panels.
The largest solar farm in the U.S. is the Nevada-based Copper Mountain Solar site, which produces 802 megawatts of power a day. It was the largest when it first opened in 2010 at 58 megawatts, and regained that status with the completion of another phase in March 2021. Coupled with three other solar facilities in the Eldorado Valley, they collectively produce 1 gigawatt of power. By comparison, the nearby Hoover Dam produces 2 gigawatts.
The largest solar facility in the world sits in India. The Bhadla Solar Park produces 2.25 gigawatts of power each day and consumes 14,000 acres.
Virginia currently ranks 11th in the U.S. in solar installation and has 208 companies operating in the state (30 in manufacturing, 88 in installation and development, and 90 listed as “other”). However, despite an explosion in solar development across the state in 2020 when Virginia ranked fourth nationwide, solar still only accounts for less than 2.6 percent of the state’s energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. A total of $2.9 billion has been invested in the industry and prices for construction have fallen 36 percent in the last five years.
Solar is not going away. It may not currently be the cheapest energy or the most cost-effective means of supplying electricity; it may never fully replace fossil fuels. But it is a renewable piece of the larger energy puzzle, one that large distributors — like Dominion Power and Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative — have committed to phasing in, at least for the coming decades. As demand increases — for both energy itself and solar quotas — more and more solar developers will step forward to take advantage of tax breaks and other incentives to meet that demand.
With that in mind, perhaps “no solar” is not as realistic as “regulated solar,” with size being a key factor. The smaller the scale of the project, the more support it draws (few disagree with rooftop panels); and by contrast, the larger the scope, the more the resistance (no one wants to see the county completely covered in solar panels). This is why the 200-acre limit established for future solar farms by the Page County Planning Commission and hired-consultant The Berkley Group seems to make the best sense and the best compromise for both sides of the argument. Landowners get to cash in on their land, developers get to launch their solar projects, and the county residents get to protect the natural resources and scenic landscape that drives its two largest industries, agriculture and tourism.
More than one-third of the acreage in Page County is protected, federal land sitting either in the Shenandoah National Park or the George Washington National Forest. The fabled Shenandoah River meanders through the valley in between. For many in Page County, the money…whatever it may be…is not enough to significantly alter the landscape.
“How could $6 million over 40 years benefit us?” Rod Graves of Luray Caverns asked the supervisors at their Sept. 21 meeting, noting the estimate that Urban Grid has submitted. “We have $70 million in tourism every year alone.”
The board of supervisors is obviously split between those who agree with the Urban Grid representative that this is simply an “economic value proposition” and those who feel it has “absolutely no benefit” to the county.
While Mr. Dicks described the process as “not complex,” the articles we read on solar site agreements all labeled the process as “complex.” It adds another level to the negotiations and it opens the door for developers to throw money at any resistance.
The new Cape Solar proposal was brought before the Page County Planning Commission at their Oct. 12 meeting. Under county code, the planning commission has 180 days to hold a public hearing and render a recommendation to the board of supervisors. The issue was initially removed (by a vote) from the Oct. 12 agenda and placed on the commission’s Oct. 26 agenda. Reports were presented by county staff and an attorney representing Urban Grid at that meeting prior to a vote to again table the issue to the commission’s Nov. 9 meeting.
Although the Cape Solar application was filed on Dec. 11, 2020, the applicant waived the 180-day time limit in a letter to the county dated March 4, 2021. Then on Sept. 27, the applicant requested that the application be placed on the Oct. 12 agenda. The county is using that date — Oct. 12, 2021 — as the starting point for the 180 days, which means a recommendation must be forwarded to the board of supervisors by April 10, 2022. The supervisors then have one year from that point to hold their own public hearing and take a vote.
And so the process begins all over again, same as it did more than two years ago. The county voted down the larger 50-megawatt Cape Solar project, at the time projected to cover 559 acres north of Luray. The supervisors approved the smaller 20-megawatt Dogwood Solar project (about 350 acres) near Dam Acres a few miles from Stanley. Dogwood is currently still in the permitting process awaiting approval from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
A lot can happen in the 18 months before the county has to make a final decision on the Cape Solar project. It was voted down once, but some aren’t sure that will happen again. A proposed solar ordinance went through many hours of scrutiny by a litany of people involved in the process, yet it lies dormant — seemingly, a waste of time and money. The developer has been heavy-handed in their involvement behind the scenes in the county’s process.
And now they’re waiting to stack chips on the negotiating table through a solar site agreement to sweeten the allure of a 500-plus acre solar farm. Is it a new revenue source for the county, or a bribe to overlook what we’d be giving up?
Local non-profits have turned down recent “donations” from Urban Grid.
Will county officials do the same?