State could overrule counties that reject solar farms under proposed law

Published 12:28 am Sunday, January 28, 2024

A pair of General Assembly bills, one in the House of Delegates and the other in the Senate, propose allowing the state to overrule county-level rejections of new solar farms.

House Bill 636 would create an approval process for projects capable of generating 50 or more megawatts, which would be overseen by the State Corporation Commission rather than local governing bodies. Should a project meet the SCC’s to-be-determined criteria but be denied approval by its host locality, the project’s developer would be authorized under the legislation to appeal the local vote to the SCC.

According to the House bill’s sponsor, Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Fairfax, the bill aims to achieve benchmarks the General Assembly established four years ago with the passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates Dominion Energy transition to 100% carbon-free energy sources by 2045. State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, is sponsoring SB 567, the Senate version of Sullivan’s bill.

The 2020 Clean Economy Act requires at least 16,100 megawatts, or just under two-thirds of the state’s electricity, come from solar or offshore wind farms by the end of 2035.

“We need to find some way to implement this statewide policy and goal that we’ve set for ourselves,” Sullivan told The Tidewater News in a Jan. 16 phone interview.

Virginia’s progress to date in reaching the Clean Economy Act’s goals differs depending who you ask. According to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2022-released energy plan, solar accounted for only 661 megawatts, or roughly 3% of the state’s 26,069-megawatt generating capacity as of Dec. 31, 2021. A 2022 survey by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center, however, identified 51 operational utility-scale solar facilities across the state that were generating a cumulative 2,657 megawatts as of the same date.

Virginia also imports excess power generated in other states through PJM, a 13-state regional transmission organization that, according to Youngkin’s plan, relies more heavily on coal than Virginia. PJM’s share of solar and wind farms, as of the end of 2021, collectively generated 4,421 megawatts or just over 2% of the multistate coalition’s collective capacity.

Virginia’s 133 cities and counties each have “a role to play” in reaching the Clean Economy Act’s goals, Sullivan contends. But in some of Virginia’s rural counties, state and local lawmakers are starting to push back against the rows of solar panels gradually replacing local farmland.

Isle of Wight County, which has approved nine solar farms since 2015, amended its zoning ordinance last year to include a provision capping the cumulative acreage devoted to solar at 2% of the county’s “prime farm soils,” or 2,446 acres. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines the term as soils with the “best combination of physical and chemical characteristics” for growing crops.

The nine approved solar farms account for roughly 2,226 acres or 91% of the maximum. The addition of the 44-megawatt “Moonlight Solar LLC” farm Jacksonville, Florida-based Palladium Energy is proposing for 523 acres off Burwells Bay and Moonlight roads would exceed the limit, bringing the county’s cumulative solar acreage to 2,500 or 2.04%.

“The County is opposed to legislation that reduces the ability of local governments to make zoning and land-use decisions that impact the local community,” said Supervisor Renee Rountree, who last November was elected to represent the Smithfield-centric District 1 seat on the county’s five-member board.

“I am in firm opposition to any legislation that would circumvent Isle of Wight County from deciding the best use of their land,” said state Sen. Emily Jordan, formerly Brewer, R-Isle of Wight. “Should this bill make it over to the Virginia Senate, I will be voting against this piece of legislation.”

Though Isle of Wight’s Planning Commission gave Moonlight Solar a unanimously unfavorable recommendation in November, the matter hasn’t yet reached the county’s supervisors for a final vote, and technically isn’t subject to the 2% cap, as Palladium applied for the requested conditional use permit two days prior to the supervisors’ May 18 vote to adopt the limit. According to Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, the Moonlight project is on hold at the developer’s request.

Sycamore Cross, another solar farm proposed last April, would span the Isle of Wight-Surry county border and take more than 1,100 acres out of agricultural and forestry use.

Surry’s supervisors, who have approved three solar farms to date, voted in 2022 to reject a 150-megawatt solar farm, dubbed “Loblolly Solar,” that would have placed panels on up to 900 acres of timberland at Routes 10 and 40. In 2023, they voted to reject the 20-megawatt “Surry Solar Center” that would have occupied 220 acres across the street from the 17th century Bacon’s Castle homestead and museum, and later that year added language to the county’s comprehensive plan capping the cumulative acreage devoted to solar at 10% of the county’s developable land, or 15,278 acres. The three approved Surry solar farms collectively occupy 8,260 acres, or 7.1% of the stated maximum.

Amy Drewry, who in November was elected to represent Surry’s Dendron District on the Board of Supervisors, said she too opposes Sullivan’s bill.

“Taking the decision-making abilities away from local government completely disregards each rural community’s special history, nature and geology,” said Drewry, who likened the bill to a form of eminent domain. She’s calling upon legislators and solar developers to instead make their projects more palatable to rural localities by offering above-market cash incentives to affected residents or place solar panels in dilapidated urban areas rather than on farmland.

“It is a draconian solution to a problem that could be creatively dealt with in other ways,” she said.

Sullivan’s bill aims to provide a workaround for solar farms that encounter opposition or locality-imposed hurdles. In addition to appealing an outright denial, Sullivan’s bill would allow solar developers to bypass the county and make their case directly to the SCC if “the locality fails to timely approve or deny an application” or the county “imposes additional requirements that are more restrictive” than what the SCC requires. Surry’s denial of Loblolly’s permit came nearly three years after the project was first proposed in 2020. The 2023 vote on the solar farm near Bacon’s Castle came more than six months after a June 2022 motion by now-retired Supervisor Judy Lyttle to approve the project drew no second, which sent the project into limbo.

Sullivan likens his bill to the state-level process Virginia created in the mid-20th century to oversee the buildout of its electrical grid. The SCC, created by an amendment to the state’s constitution in 1902 to oversee the railroad and telephone industries, was given additional authority under the Virginia Utility Facilities Act in 1950 to issue a “certificate of convenience and necessity” to approve expansions of the power grid. The act remains in effect and was last amended in 2017. Localities, he said, “continue to have input in all this” but can’t outright refuse to allow power lines.

“Everyone needs to do their part, subject to the availability of space,” Sullivan said.