Two years after the Clean Economy Act set ambitious goals for renewable energy development across Virginia, the General Assembly is trying to balance a solar building boom with a desire to preserve farmland and forests.
In more rural parts of the state, particularly in the wealthier Upper Piedmont region, some residents have complained about clear-cutting of forests to install signs and sprawling facilities encroaching on agricultural fields. formerly available for hire.
“The number one thing I hear from the communities in which we serve is concern about the loss of farms and forests in relation to these projects,” said Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Environmental Council. du Piedmont, a non-profit organization that works in nine counties stretching from Albemarle in the south to Loudoun in the north.
Holmes points to a recent analysis from Virginia Commonwealth University for the state Department of Energy as evidence that policy makers have a legitimate concern. This study found that about 8,000 of the 14,000 acres disturbed in Virginia for solar installations were previously forested, although it concluded that individual solar farms are more likely to be located on cropland.
Policy makers fear that these land conversions will have unintended consequences. In particular, they argue that the loss of woodlands and the compaction of agricultural soils could hamper Virginia’s years-long costly effort to meet the federal government’s 2025 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.
“On the one hand, we have solar developers trying to achieve the goals that we set out in the Clean Economy Act,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, said during a Senate committee hearing the last week. “On the other hand, you have all the Chesapeake Bay requirements [cleanup]. …And basically, they’re almost like two freight trains colliding.
House Bill 206
This session of the General Assembly, House Bill 206 offered a solution. The bill, which came from the Piedmont Environmental Council and was brought by Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, requires the state to analyze the impact of small- and medium-sized solar and energy storage projects on forest lands and those containing prime agricultural products. soils, a federal classification defined in state law.
If a project affects 50 acres or more of woodland or 10 acres or more of prime agricultural soil, proponents will be required to provide mitigation measures for those impacts. What that mitigation looks like will be determined by what Petersen described as “the mother of all stakeholder groups” who will be convened by the Department of Environmental Quality.
The law only applies to projects reviewed under Virginia’s “permit-by-rule” process, which was created to expedite reviews for solar and energy storage projects 150 megawatts and below. Larger projects, which must be approved by the Crown Corporations Commission, would not be subject to the new rules.
Hammered out for hours behind closed doors, the final version of the legislation, which passed the Senate and approved by the House on Wednesday, left few negotiators from the solar, agriculture and forestry industries satisfied.
“Not everyone is totally happy and not everyone is totally crazy,” Webert told a Senate panel. But the compromise “strikes a balance”, he said.
The bill will now go to Governor Glenn Youngkin for his signature. A spokesperson said he would review the legislation once it reached his desk.
Virginia solar industry officials are wary of the legislation because of the chilling effect they fear it will have on long-term development. They are wary of Virginia Republicans’ broader efforts to roll back the Virginia Clean Economy Act and other democratic legislation designed to shift the state from fossil fuels to renewables.
Chip Dix, a Gentry Locke attorney who represented a variety of Virginia solar developers and buyers of renewable energy in the negotiations, said one of the industry’s main concerns is that mitigation will be defined from so narrowly that it would mean that projects would have to avoid primary agriculture. and fully wooded land.
This would “fundamentally stop most large solar projects in Virginia in their tracks,” he told senators.
Mike Rolband, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, told lawmakers that the agency views mitigation as more than just avoiding certain lands or resources. For solar developers, mitigation could also include efforts to minimize impacts through better management practices such as keeping certain buffer trees in place or compensation in the form of payments or investments elsewhere.
Mitigation and Exemptions
HB 206’s acreage thresholds were particularly objectionable to the solar industry, which classifies all disturbances of more than 10 acres of prime agricultural soil or 50 acres of adjacent forest as “significant adverse impacts” requiring some form attenuation.
“The numbers seem arbitrary. There’s no particular scientific reason why it’s 10 acres and not 20 acres,” said Harry Godfrey, executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a business group that champions renewable energy and has was one of the main negotiators of the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
Instead, he argued that “the determination of whether this is a negative impact should take into account many other factors.” He said it makes more sense for those factors to be evaluated during the local permitting process, which must be completed before a rule permit project can gain state approval.
Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council, described the acreage thresholds as the product of negotiations.
“The average parcel of forest land here in the Commonwealth that is private land is 27 acres,” he told senators. “So we didn’t want to make it difficult for solar developers, but at the same time, we need to conserve those acres.”
Proponents of the bill say such conservation could also protect other state resources like the Chesapeake Bay. Because trees not only absorb water during storms but filter runoff through their roots, Virginia officials see forest preservation as one of the most effective tools for reducing Chesapeake Bay pollution.
“We’re kind of in a unique place given our commitments to the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the commitments we’ve made to try to be as attractive as possible for solar development,” Shreve told the Mercury.
In return for the area thresholds, the compromise gives the solar industry a significant concession: no solar project that submits an application to connect to the regional power grid by December 31, 2024 is not subject to the new rules.
The grandfather clause, said Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, on the House floor in February, aims to “ensure there is no disruption” to projects already underway.
“I just don’t think it’s fair for developers to change the rules midway through this process,” he said.
Feelings on the exemption, as on the larger bill, were mixed. Some in the solar industry feared it could spark a short-term land rush as developers scramble to get projects into the interconnection queue before the new requirements take effect. And Holmes said the loophole means Virginia likely won’t see mitigation of solar impacts on farmland and forestry until 2028 at the earliest, given long lead times for projects.
“I don’t think anyone likes the final version, but there was an acknowledgment of an issue that needs to be resolved and a way forward to have a conversation,” Holmes said. “For that, I think the bill provides an opportunity to figure out how we’re going to do that in a more sensible way.”
Solar growth across Virginia has caused a series of reactionsespecially since the passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020 requiring the state’s two largest electric utilities to deliver more than 16 gigawatts of energy resource by 2035.
Many Republicans in particular have denounced what they call the destructive effects of solar energy on natural resources.
“Anytime you take such a large mass of land out of agriculture or forest, the negative environmental impacts will be far greater than the potential environmental impacts of not burning coal,” Del said. Bobby Orrock, R-Carolina, in February.
But Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, argued that imposing additional requirements on solar developers to offset impacts on forests and farmland would slow solar growth in less affluent rural areas like Southside, where many local governments see the industry as a way to bolster tight budgets. .
While areas like those represented by patron HB 206 Webert can enjoy high household incomes, “You come to my part of the state where you have a family income of about $35,000 a year,” Marshall said. “It might help his part of the state, but it’s going to hurt my part of the state.”
Forest owners and farmers are equally divided on solar expansion.
“It really depends on which producers you talk to,” Shreve said. “Some growers love it and use it to supplement the farm income they have so they can keep farming.” Others, however, “cry out what they consider right, especially big projects, which take up a ton of land.”
Shreve is adamant that the agriculture industry is not anti-solar.
“It was really about placement,” he said. “We shouldn’t be trying to encourage solar power, not how much solar power we should get for the grid, but really what happens when they’re put in the ground.”