Zoning for Solar

transmission_scale_solarby William Marsh

Want to see more solar energy in Virginia? There many ways to tackle the challenge. One that typically gets overlooked is for local governments to amend their zoning ordinances to be friendlier to larger scale (transmission scale) solar generation of electricity.

Solar power can be generated either for private use on a property, through a net metering arrangement that allows for sale of small quantities of power to be sold to the electric grid, or through a large-scale array that dispatches electricity to transmission lines. The third use, transmission scale, is best suited for locations near existing transmission lines and substations where voltage exceeds 138 kilovolts. Typically, projects require an adjacent substation that raises electrical voltage to match the transmission line’s voltage. (Transmission lines are the wires suspended from tall towers that convey power from power plants, often across state boundaries, as opposed to the shorter, more ubiquitous power lines.)

The right kind of zoning ordinance can simplify the adoption of large-scale solar projects connected to the transmission grid. When Amazon Web Services recently announced plans to build a solar farm in Accomack County, the local zoning ordinance explicitly recognized solar power generation and provided a predictable permit approval process. Accomack is one of three counties, along with Northampton and Clarke County, that has amended its zoning ordinance in the past five years to accommodate transmission-scale solar.

Whether other local jurisdictions are prepared to permit similar transmission- scale solar is less clear. For example, in Loudoun County where I reside, a transmission-scale solar project is permitted only on land that is zoned general industry or heavy industrial use, where any transmission-scale energy project like coal, natural gas, or nuclear is allowed, even though solar generation produces power with less noise, pollution and other side effects than conventional power generation. When added to non-forested open land with gentle slopes, solar power has little if any effect on neighboring parcels, because neither noise nor pollution is generated.

When transmission-scale solar power is bundled with other transmission-scale resources in zoning ordinances, less land within a jurisdiction is deemed eligible for transmission-scale solar development. Potential solar developers endure less predictable, more cumbersome political level approvals from boards of supervisors. Solar developers also must also seek permits from the State Corporation Commission and PJM regional transmission organization, so local permits are not their only hurdle. But the hurdle in Virginia often is higher than it needs to be.

North Carolina has also recognized this hurdle. In December 2013, a diverse working group sponsored by the NC Sustainable Energy Association and North Carolina Solar Center published the “Template Solar Energy Development Ordinance for North Carolina.” The model ordinance provides text to fit smaller scale, residential scale solar approvals; community/commercial solar scale; and the larger, transmission-scale projects described here. Among other details, it addresses maximum suggested height of a ground-mounted module and minimum setbacks, or distances, from neighboring properties. The ordinance template is available to all interested North Carolina jurisdictions and was published after North Carolina had already surpassed Virginia and other neighboring states in solar installations.

Virginia should develop a similar model ordinance that can draw from solar-ready ordinances already adopted in Accomack, Northampton, and Clarke Counties. I believe this would be a worthwhile effort of the newly approved Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

William Marsh is a civil engineer who has worked for local government in northern Virginia the last 13 years, currently at Fairfax County.  He also owns a rooftop solar array at his home.

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13 responses to “Zoning for Solar

  1. thanks much for the post – Mr. Marsh

    Since we travel to NC on a fairly regular basis .. I’ve seen huge solar arrays on the trip down and here is one of them:

    https://goo.gl/maps/EYc1E

    it’s apparently serving a poultry processing plant…

    I have to believe that industry like that in Va would also avail themselves of such options if it was supported/encouraged/incentivized by the State and localities.

    I’m not convinced that there is no land in Loudoun to do solar.. either…
    Western Loudoun has lots of south-eastern facing hills

    take a look: goo.gl/maps/JELE7

  2. Marsh makes a valuable contribution to the discussion of solar energy in Virginia. Almost everyone agrees that it would be a good thing to generate a bigger share of electricity through solar in Virginia (as long as it can be done at a competitive cost while safeguarding the stability and reliability of the electric grid.) There are two ways to go about this. The path of folly is to impose Renewable Portfolio Standards, which ensure neither competitive cost nor grid stability. The path of wisdom is to bring down the cost of solar through R&D and the removal of regulatory barriers.

    Who knew that county zoning codes made it more difficult to locate transmission-scale solar sites? I sure didn’t. Perhaps the pro-solar groups should spend more of their time and energy promoting Marsh’s proposal of creating a model solar zoning code and then promoting it to local governments across Virginia.

  3. Commercial size units can also be put on building rooftops for businesses, government offices, etc. The more distributed, the more steady is the solar contribution to the grid. Although, larger scale systems are less expensive per kWh.

    Duke Energy is developing a 52 MW solar facility in North Carolina to serve two universities and a hospital. New greenfield development would not be required.

    It is more difficult here in the east, because large areas of land suitable for utility scale developments are usually productive farmland. Something that we should be safeguarding, not covering up with housing projects and solar arrays. Out west they often have access to desert or other unproductive land.

    That means we need to be more innovative such as using old landfills, abandoned quarries, school roofs, etc. The major drawback in Virginia is that Dominion will not allow a third-party developer to install units that are then used for net metering. This allows a developer to take advantage of the current tax credits and thus install lower cost facilities for schools, government offices, etc. Dominion sued Washington & Lee University when they attempted to do that.

    But Dominion could take the lead in developing large scale solar facilities around the service territory. They are already considering a small pilot project and a larger one, potentially located on available land at one of the new gas-fired plants under development in Southside Virginia. I don’t think they see the economics working out for them just yet. There is no mandate such as a Renewable Portfolio Standard that other states have implemented (ours is voluntary). So solar is progressing much more slowly here than it is in North Carolina.

    • re: ” That means we need to be more innovative such as using old landfills, abandoned quarries, school roofs, etc. The major drawback in Virginia is that Dominion will not allow a third-party developer to install units that are then used for net metering.”

      think about the road right-of-ways in the state. VDOT already rents right-of-way to the cell tower companies.. why not 3rd party solar?

      power line rights of ways… could actually save even more money. every couple of years – REC sends a lot of guys and a lot of equipment to clear out the brush and vegetation under their power lines…

      Sound walls, ramps, the land inside of interstate ramps -wasted land – would seem to be ideal sites…

      all these panels would have to feed into controllers – and the controllers would reject the available power if the grid could not use it or it would destabilize the grid.

      I still don’t understand the all or nothing mentality of the opponents.

      make it work. what stops us from doing the things that make it work the way it needs to? we’re going to walk away from available power because it’s not like the power we’re used to?

  4. Correction:
    The 52 MW North Carolina Development will use farmland for the solar arrays. The three customers are in D.C. – George Washington University, American University and GW University Hospital. If this made sense for Duke Energy to be involved in and the energy is traveling through Virginia on its way to D.C., I wonder why Dominion wouldn’t be interested in a project like that. It would save on transmission losses if we built it in Virginia. Link to article is below:

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2014/07/huge-north-carolina-solar-project-could-move-the-needle-for-solars-possibilities.html

    • the big disincentive is Dominion’s … I think the rest would happen even in Virginia.

      I invite folks to take a trip to the various rural parts of Va where much land is no longer productive for anything including agricultural.

      net metering is an existential threat threat to Dominions basic business model which is based on how much electricity they produce and sell – not what others produce and Dominion sells for them.

      Perhaps what it takes is a more favorable calculation for what dominion pays for solar… and if we have to choose – I’d rather see them pay SOMETHING even if not full wholesale rather than a blanket prohibition of any/all net metering.

      I also wonder why apparently none of the electric cooperatives in Va do not do net metering either.

      again -this is not about relying on wind/solar for baseload.. it’s being able to harvest it when it can be a benefit – and one area for sure is when the sun is out and hot and the air conditions are coming on – and dominion has to go look for additional peak load from PJM or fire up dispatch plants.

      surely under those conditions SOLAR would be competitive. My understanding is that peak load power – can be 7 times more than baseload power although I think that number has shifted since natural gas got cheaper.

      • LTG, you say “Perhaps what it takes is a more favorable calculation for what dominion pays for solar… and if we have to choose – I’d rather see them pay SOMETHING even if not full wholesale rather than a blanket prohibition of any/all net metering.” Dominion is not the villain here! All commercial-scale electricity (including solar) generated in Virginia is sold into the PJM wholesale marketplace, which buys it on the basis of the demand for electricity at that moment and the marginal price determined by the most expensive generating units operating at the moment (adjusted somewhat for location). So, the price is NOT fixed by Dominion, and indeed Dominion has nothing to do with the price except for the up-front cost of constructing the transmission facilities — if it’s built in Dominion’s territory at all.

        You make this assumption that solar power is only little collectors on rooftops, “behind the meter”-style installations built by homeowners and other amateurs, and dependent upon Dominion for some kind of billing arrangement that deducts the unit’s physical output from the same homeowner’s physical consumption of electricity. That’s simply not true for anything on the scale of Accomack’s solar units.

        I applaud this post; we have to get beyond the amateur mindset and realize solar generation on a large scale is viable now and the impediments are structural issues like zoning and proximity to transmission lines and substations — not the local electric utility.

        Where Dominion really may become a factor is in INVESTING in solar itself, as the best choice for new generation laid out in its IRP. As you have noted, solar power has to be planned for, integrated into a resource plan that takes into account the economics of power generation not only when the sun is shining but on rainy days and every night. You have to have a diverse mix of generation to deal with all the combinations.

        • thanks for the comment and info Acbar.

          I’m confused about solar to grid in Va – in Dominion’s territory and in the coops territory.

          Somehow I got it in my mind that DOminion won’t allow Solar to feed into “it’s” grid… as opposed to it being PJM’s grid..

          I’m ignorant on so much of this (though not shy about opinions)…

          so does Dominion buy solar power from residential and commercial?

          why did Amazon sell it to Md utilities?

          Can anyone in Va sell solar to PJM and do it via Dominion/coop grid infrastructure?

          let me have it!

  5. Great post William. The eastern shore counties of Northumberland and Accomack should particularly be suited for large scale solar.

    Many good comments here about North Carolina’s progress in developing this resource. That may be coming to a screeching halt, though:

    http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/07/01/value-solar-tax-credit-might-known-gone/29579671/

    • And your article from NC is terrific also, Rowinguy. NC has a vibrant solar business environment — but you are talking about mostly commercial scale installations there — and you are talking about a lot of State money in the form of subsidies to the BUILDERS of solar generation. As the article says, “The end of the solar tax credits on Jan. 1, and the end of those credits that McCrory and the General Assembly extended until Jan. 1, 2017, will save the state roughly between $600 million and $800 million over a period of five years, Tart said.” That’s a lot of taxpayer cash to put on the line towards one kind of electric generation over another. Where is Virginia on that issue? g

      Your article also contains the quote, “”There’s no place the solar industry is making it on its own,” said Scott, who also runs an economic consulting firm. “If you take away its subsidy and tax credit, it can’t make money and it’ll go away.”” I don’t agree with Mr. Scott. Solar costs are down, and solar collector efficiencies are up, and developments in the battery business may revolutionize things. As the article also points out, there’s solar generation investment in NC by the military and Walmart, and that appears to be going ahead regardless of State subsidies; “”If these organizations have the opportunity to save money, let the market decide,” Szoka said.” IMHO this is the future of solar generation: unsubsidized and built simply because it’s the best economic choice.

    • And your article from NC is terrific also, Rowinguy. NC has a vibrant solar business environment — but you are talking about mostly commercial scale installations there — and you are talking about a lot of State money in the form of subsidies to the BUILDERS of solar generation. As the article says, “The end of the solar tax credits on Jan. 1, and the end of those credits that McCrory and the General Assembly extended until Jan. 1, 2017, will save the state roughly between $600 million and $800 million over a period of five years, Tart said.” That’s a lot of taxpayer cash to put on the line towards one kind of electric generation over another. Where is Virginia on that issue?

      Your article also contains the quote, “”There’s no place the solar industry is making it on its own,” said Scott, who also runs an economic consulting firm. “If you take away its subsidy and tax credit, it can’t make money and it’ll go away.”” I don’t agree with Mr. Scott. Solar costs are down, and solar collector efficiencies are up, and developments in the battery business may revolutionize things. As the article also points out, there’s solar generation investment in NC by the military and Walmart, and that appears to be going ahead regardless of State subsidies; “”If these organizations have the opportunity to save money, let the market decide,” Szoka said.” IMHO this is the future of solar generation: built because it’s the economic choice.

  6. It should be noted that Virginia DOES have model ordinances for solar and wind power – both small and large scale. Details on the model ordinances is available at http://www.deq.virginia.gov/Programs/RenewableEnergy/ModelOrdinances.aspx.

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