Industrial-Scale Solar Comes to Virginia

Industrial-scale solar farm in California.

If you’re curious what an industrial-scale solar farm will look like, check out Sustainable Power Group LLC’s proposed 3,500-acre solar facility in Spotsylvania County. The Utah company wants to build a 500-megawatt electric power generating station that would entail building approximately 1 million solar panels.

Writes the Free Lance-Star:

The proposed facility would produce enough energy to power all of Spotsylvania’s nearly 46,000 homes nearly twice over, but the company plans to sell the power to corporations throughout Virginia and possibly other states. Microsoft Corp. has said it plans to buy more than half of the energy produced by the solar farm to power its data centers in Virginia.

Think about it: 3,500 acres is more than five square miles. That’s a lot of land. Virginia, by way of reference, is 42,775 square miles. Let’s say the solar farms can supply electricity to 90,000 homes (at peak sunlight). It would take nearly 500 square miles of solar panels to supply all the homes in the state — and considerably more to supply all the businesses. We could be talking about solar panels covering 1% of Virginia’s land mass. This is a major land use issue.

In the early stage of Virginia’s solar development, developers are cherry-picking the prime sites — land located near existing transmission lines that spares the necessity of building power lines to tie into the grid. Rural residents seem to be highly ambivalent about solar farms as it is. Just imagine what will happen if all the good sites are taken and developers have to begin building transmission spurs to connect to the grid. Not only would that add a significant cost, it would require running the regulatory gamut. Inevitably, landowners would complain, especially if the solar developers resorted to eminent domain to cross their property. Opponents would draw upon the array of legal, regulatory and P.R. innovations pioneered to thwart projects initiated by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Under such conditions, would independent solar developers have the financial staying power to slog through those battles?

Perhaps the question is academic. Solar will not likely exceed 25% of Dominion’s electric power generation over the next couple of decades. I have no idea if developers will run out of suitable sites for solar farms by then. But who knows? If the Sustainable Power Group is talking about selling green power into the PJM grid, and if other developers follow its lead, perhaps the market for solar is bigger than what it would take to supply Virginia residents alone. The day the Old Dominion runs out of easily cherry-picked sites might come sooner than we think. Once solar reaches critical mass, it could well create a new set of conflicts and controversies.

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11 responses to “Industrial-Scale Solar Comes to Virginia

  1. This should give us pause, because there are plusses and minuses, but consider the plusses for a moment:

    Visual: 3500 acres of anything, let alone shiny solar cells, is going to be visible from the air, but solar installations are low to the ground and not that noticeable horizontally. Plus, the usual practice is to leave a little screening of forest or plant ornamental bushes around the site. The transmission connection to the site may be the ugliest component, and there is usually more than one way to route the wires.

    Noise: Essentially none, not for equipment noise, not for trucks delivering fuel or taking away fly ash, not for employees arriving for shifts. There will be some construction traffic but again, not much construction noise.

    Other pollution: Also essentially none for smells, air particulates, water runoff, etc.

    Site degradation. Yes, this is farmland taken out of agricultural use; however, the frames on which the collectors are mounted are on posts driven into the ground which are easily pulled up and removed. In other words, the site is easily restored. The site is not heavily graded, there are no concrete slabs, no rusted buildings, no network of paved roads, no polluted effluents, no settling ponds. Agricultural uses and even homes and schools can remain close to the site. The only thing difficult to remove is the electrical connection to the grid — which some would consider an asset as it makes the site more attractive for future industrial development.

    Economic impact: a solar farm silently pays taxes. It does not employee a lot of people, but there will be a few steady jobs doing routine maintenance as well as dispatch opereations, Maintenance on the mechanics of 3000 acres of frames, drive rods and gears supporting solar collectors which turn to face the sun is not trivial; and there’s also the task of keeping the collectors clean and snow free. The likelihood is that a big solar station will drive up local land prices for similar flat land but shouldn’t affect housing prices much.

  2. There is major opposition to the project in the county – specially an upscale housing community nearby.

    I have never seen such NIMBY Demonization in my life. They put any green weenies to shame!

    The land-use thing is way overblown. So is the “farmland” issue. Take a look
    at how much land in Va is taken up by highways and power line right-of-ways.

    Next time you drive away from the urban areas – take a look around – millions of acres of land now sits fallow …no longer farmed…

    And no worries about “cherry picking sites either.. take a look:

    but what this REALLY exposes is Dominion’s plan to build more and more generation!!!!

    • This is not a Dominion prolect — at least so far. Sustainable Power Group LLC is an indendent generator building what’s known as a “merchant” plant — no guarantees, but financed and built on the expectation of sales to the PJM markets. Which proves Dominion could do the same, without any involvement by retail ratepayers.

      JB quotes above a press release saying, “the company plans to sell the power to corporations throughout Virginia and possibly other states. Microsoft Corp. has said it plans to buy more than half of the energy produced by the solar farm to power its data centers in Virginia.” Actually this independent generating company will sell three products: electric energy, probably to PJM’s wholesale energy market at the current LMP (locational marginal price); electric capacity, to the annual account of any PJM LSE buying it directly or in the PJM long range wholesale capacity market; and RECs (renewable energy credits), usually sold directly to large retail customers or through a State REC exchange. There is sufficient profit in all this to support this independent venture; why should ratepayers give Dominion a sweeter deal?

  3. I wasn’t clear. I was pointing out that this project and a few more like it will call into question – even more – other proposed gas plants by Dominion to meet “demand”.

    If merchant projects like this – multiply – and supply power to PJM – then what is Dominion going to do with all those gas plants? Selling power at night when solar is sleeping?

    What’s often missing in these discussions is proportion.

    For instance – in this case – how does the 500 MW compared to the total MW demand in Virginia.

    second question – If this facility and facilities like it – can produce power during the day – cheaper than Dominion can with their gas plants.. why wouldn’t Dominion be a customer?

  4. Good points, Acbar.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  5. The TD had a brief story this morning about the SCC rejecting Dominion’s most recent request to create a 100% renewable tariff. With that failure, large users remain free to contract with this private merchant provider. I’m trying to track down the actual SCC decision, but Jim may beat me to it. His friends at Dominion surely have a copy….

  6. With or without the tariff – what keeps other merchants from proposing more (and more) of this scope/scale solar in Virginia or perhaps ask what conditions or changes has motivated proposals this size in the first place?

    The land-use footprint – about 1% holds enough solar to power all of Spotsylvania. Imagine each county in Va devoting just 1% of it’s unused/abandoned farmland/timber lands to generate enough power for the
    entire county.

    What’s the principled argument against that?

    If, in doing that, we could effectively cut pollution by a third or more – AND reduce energy costs and that’s not taking into account ANY demand side conservation.

    This is not some wild-eyed green weenie hallucination. This is an easily accomplished real world thing that is being stopped by a company that PREFERS to make profits from selling fossil-fuel-generated electricity – and NIMBY types who seem to care more about how solar panels “look” than how fossil fuel plants and pollution “look”.

    • The only reason this hasn’t happened earlier in VA is that the better sites elsewhere have already been taken.

      It’s all a business decision: Virginia offers good sun angle, lots of transmission lines, access to the PJM markets, and (so far) a relatively favorable political climate; rural land is cheap but likely to increase in value the most over 30+ years in a place like Spotsylvania near the urban corridor. What’s the alternative? Eastern NC offers all the same except a slightly better sun angle but fewer transmission lines to connect to. Eastern NC is getting picked over these days; now it’s Virginia that looks good. The rest of NC and south of there is not in PJM and has not got the robust market for the solar output. North of VA, in PA and MD, there is less sun and, east of the mountains, more expensive land, offset by
      more expected appreciation in land value.

    • You mention “the tariff”: IMHO the Dominion tariff filing is a bogus issue. It plays no role with independent generator developers. It matters to large retail customers mainly because, as I understand it, Dominion is using the tariff change it filed last year to try to eliminate a loophole for its customers — primarily larger commercial customers — to have access to other suppliers of renewable energy, pursuant to the GA’s mandate that if the incumbent utility offers an approved 100% renewables rate, then nobody else can.

      The SCC’s order (read it via the link I gave Steve, above) finds that DVP tried to pack too much discretion into its proposed rate formula and therefore the result was not “just and reasonable.” Of course the real problem is the way the GA wrote the law; Dominion has no incentive to make this new tariff provision attractive, so long as its existence closes the loophole.

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