Conservation Vs. Solar in Powhatan County

Conservation easements don’t just block projects like pipelines, highways and electric transmission lines. As demonstrated in Powhatan County Monday, they can block solar farms as well.

Faced with skepticism from the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors, Cartersville Solar LLC has withdrawn a proposal to build a solar farm on a 3,000-acre tract of property, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The proposal had encountered opposition from Powhatan residents. Citizens commenting at public hearings cited negative ecological impact on protected wetlands — the only remaining wildlife corridor connecting the James and Appomattox rivers — and on rare and endangered species.

Cartersville Solar had acquired 2,998 acres near the intersection of Cartersville and Duke roads for the purpose of building a solar farm. (The RTD article does not say how much power it would generate.) In November, the Powhatan County Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of the project on the grounds that the proposed use is not consistent with the 2010 Long-Range Comprehensive Plan. Part of the project would fall into an area designed Priority Conservation Area and Protected Land.

On Monday, Parker Sloan with Cypress Creek Renewables (presumably, there is some connection between Cypress Creek, a North Carolina solar developer, and Cartersville Solar, which lists a Henrico County business address, but the RTD did not make that clear) explained how the company proposed making 400 acres of the project a conservation easement. After the public hearing, in which seven people spoke against and one person in favor of granting a conditional use permit, Cartersville Solar withdrew the application.

One speaker at the hearing, representing Powhatan Properties Land and Lumber, noted that if the solar farm was not approved, all the trees would be cut down for timber.

Bacon’s bottom line: There are legitimate reasons for creating conservation areas. There are ecologically significant wildlife habitats and aesthetically significant viewsheds that are worth preserving. Personally, I’m a big supporter of protecting mountains, rivers, and scenic byways from residential or commercial development — as long as there is a legitimate public purpose. Whether tax-abatement easements should be granted to protect the horse-farm vistas of retired multimillionaires, keep taxes low for other large landowners, or advance other private purposes are questions well worth having. In this case, Powhatan has declared part of the land in question to be part of a conservation “area.” The designation is aspirational and does not create a legal requirement. But it has given Powhatan supervisors a fig leaf for blocking the solar farm.

Question: Will conservation areas and/or conservation easements, put in place to protect the environment, now be used to block solar farms… a renewable energy source that protects the environment?

As an aside: I would observe that rural Virginians do not share the environmental preoccupations of urban elites. Most do not give a fig about climate change. They don’t believe the alarums above global warming, they don’t share the enthusiasm of reducing CO2 emissions, and they don’t like the idea of giant solar developers converting entire square miles of farmland and timber into solar farms. They worry about the impact on the tax base. They worry about viewsheds. They worry about maintaining the integrity of their communities. And they convince themselves that solar farms create a localized environmental menace. I don’t find their arguments terribly compelling, but there is no denying that resistance to solar farms has sprouted all across rural Virginia.

The local opposition strikes me as rustic and unsophisticated. That’s not surprising. Solar farm protesters don’t get support from the deep-pocketed network of environmentalist and social-justice activist groups that have mastered the art of P.R. spin. Indeed Virginia media, which lavishes attention on the foes of natural gas pipelines, pays solar controversies little heed — other than treating them as hyper-local stories in county zoning controversies. As homeowners and small landowners — and probably Trump voters, to boot — solar foes don’t stroke the erogenous zones that excite today’s generation of Social Justice Warrior journalists. But they do have one set of allies — local elected officials. And they are responsive indeed.

Editor’s note: I have re-written parts of this post after receiving feedback from a land use attorney. In the original post, I was not sufficiently clear in distinguishing between conservation areas and conservation easements.

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16 responses to “Conservation Vs. Solar in Powhatan County

  1. The Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors had another extensive discussion Tuesday night about that giant solar facility, without taking a vote. I had a conversation this week with a friend in another county who has a 200 plus acre proposal pending right across from her property, also awaiting a county decision on a conditional use permit. It would be the second solar development in the vicinity.

    This is the political Achilles heel of all this, the outraged neighbors who do not want to live near or next door to these industrial facilities. With a much small physical footprint a nice and in my opinion environmentally benign gas generator produces the same amount of electricity as a solar field the size of Rhode Island. The environmental True Believers and the giant tax-advantaged, profit-driven industry behind them will never admit that there is always, always a trade off. Only in religion can one find Nirvana, and for years it has been clear this is a form of religious fanaticism, treating resistance or doubt as heresy.

    • Thanks for your sanity here, Steve. The unnecessary wastage and vast despoliation Virginia lands, including vital open fields and timber-lands, for a highly flawed and costly false solution, a hoax, that does not solve the problem, and indeed that will insure that we never solve the problem in time, will defeat solar in Virginia. Or if that defeat does not happen, it will otherwise nearly ruin the state on a fool errand. Has anyone here calculated the amount of land in acreage that solar will need to provide one third of Virginia’s total electric demand, an event likely to reek havoc on the grid and its reliability, when and if that capacity is achieved, absent great cost and risk imposed on all Virginians? And surely their neighbors too.

    • Steve and Reed, Landowners get on-going payments from solar as long as it is on the property and promises that the equipment will be removed if no longer used. Adjacent landowners get nothing – but they don’t face the level of water and air pollution, noise, explosion, and other health and safety risks. Landowners get to decide if they want to use their land this way, solar is not forced upon them.

      Landowners get one-time easements from natural gas. If the equipment is no longer used, it will be abandoned where it lies underground. Imagine what will face us when 42 inch pipes are deteriorating! While A landowner may get a lot of money for selling the site of the gas generator, those stuck with the pollution, explosion risk , noise, etc. on neighboring properties get nothing. Their lot stuck next to industrial facilities is far worse than that of neighbors of solar farms.

      We have a federal and state system of pipeline pollution and safety oversight that puts less emphasis on protecting rural people, yet these facilities are often located in rural areas. Most federal inspectors have been on the job just a few years and lack depth of experience. Congress told them to emphasize populated areas so it wouldn’t have to provide enough money for PHMSA to do the job it’s assigned.

      The companies building pipelines have zero incentive to work with the landowners they affect – in my case, insisting that they will not move the path so that it does not bisect our most used fields but follows their edges, and so our buildings are only on the edge of the incineration zone instead of the middle. They refused to give us thicker pipe and closer cut-off valves as are required in populated areas. There is no sign that more attention/money will be given to protect us from pollution and explosions, in fact, it seems to be still declining. If you’re forcing us to live with such deadly infrastructure, and to accept less clean air and water (we’ve been repeatedly told that we can “afford” the pollution), the least you can do is guarantee us safety. We get nothing!

      Thus, I’d accept a solar farm far quicker than anything related to natural gas.

      • So why not push for an easement that requires the land to be restored to its prior condition if and when the pipeline (or other use) ceases? We require mines to reclaim land. Why not pipelines?

  2. According to a recent working paper of the UN and International Renewable Energy Agency, “non-renewable (primarily fossil fuel) energy, representing around 90 percent of global primary energy use.”

    As demands for energy use continue to increase, these kinds of battles will continue. It is important for all level’s of government to have an energy policy (including a renewable energy portfolio with targets at the state level) which includes strategies (urban or rural) for land use for energy generation, among other aspects of the energy strategy (like smart grids and distributed generation with smart meters for the small generator – I have been one in MD, 3.96KW with BGE). https://knowledge.unccd.int/sites/default/files/2018-06/2.%20Fritsche%2Bet%2Bal%2B%282017%29%2BEnergy%2Band%2BLand%2BUse%2B-%2BGLO%2Bpaper-corr.pdf

  3. Yes, consumer advocate, the landowner in the case I was discussing with my friend has said to the neighbors that the revenue from the solar developer will exceed the potential agriculture revenue on the same property. And I agree having a gas generation plant next door is also highly industrial – but meeting our needs that way uses far less land and would put-out far fewer neighbors. My point is there are always trade-offs. If I were king for a day, I might not stop that pipeline ripping through your farm but I’d make sure you got as rich as the stockholders. People who fought and lost battles with Standard Oil a century ago were far better off in the long run if they took the stock! Not meaning to diminish the problems this is causing you.

    My friend moved out to the country for a reason, and those reasons will be greatly diminished if she stands on her porch and has a view full of solar panels. Not something she expected in an agricultural zone.

    • “I agree having a gas generation plant next door is also highly industrial – but meeting our needs that way uses far less land and would put-out far fewer neighbors. ” Steve, I disagree with your last observation. NIMBY is NIMBY; most “neighbors” are opposed to both.

  4. There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy about the “viewshed”.

    here’s what it has happened to the “viewshed” that provided us with electricity before now:

    so all these folks who NOW decry the “terrible” solar apparently were fairly quiet before and even now – poo poo the coal ash issue.

    Here’s the thing.

    People don’t care – as long as it’s not in their backyard.

    That’s the bottom line.

    but of all those sources of energy – solar has to be one of the more benign in terms of impacts.

  5. Payments to land-owner farmers in excess of farming income tends to contradict the hypothesis that solar is so cheap. I feel like we are not hearing the whole truth on cost structure.

    • Solar is not cheap at all. Quite the reverse, everywhere solar goes, the price of electricity goes sky high. California for example, the cost up five fold since that state started heavy into solar. Europe is much the same story. Few tell the whole truth. It’s too harsh.

  6. solar is NOT “free” , nor without impacts nor is it “available” 24/7 but it’s not more costly that competing fuels. That’s just not true.

    The problems in California are different from other states using solar – and not directly related to solar but more to how they provide power when solar is not available – the same problem Germany has if shuts coal plants and nukes.

    You just cannot power the grid 24/7 on solar – that’s the reality.

    But a second reality is that every minute you can burn solar instead of gas or oil or coal – is a minute with lower pollution and lower costs.

    Nowhere is this more true than places that do not have coal or Nukes and that’s the 10,000 islands in the world where their primary fuel is diesel at a cost of about 3 times what we pay in Virginia. Imagine your electric bill being 3 times what it is right now.

    • Larry, I keep waiting for a company to urge me to write my senator and delegate to change Virginia law so that I can purchase lower-priced solar energy directly from that company. I’m still waiting to get a mailer that shows I can save $X.XX per kwh if I can switch to them.

      If companies could produce power from renewable sources at prices well below those of Dominion, we’d see tremendous pressure on the General Assembly to rewrite state law. Even Dominion cannot withstand a huge onslaught of consumer anger.

      Many environmental groups have the integrity of Rick Singer and his clients. If green power is cheaper, let’s see it.

      • When it comes to integrity, or more precisely the lack thereof, the environmental groups don’t hold a candle (pun intended) to our local and state representatives.

        Here is a good example. Five months ago the stooges on the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors fell all over themselves in a rush to approve a solar farm (industrial use) in the rural area. At the time, the applicant, Virginia Solar, requested a waiver from the requirement to pave the “unpaved road” that would be used to access the site as the cost would wreck their financials.

        Despite the Transportation Department’s recommendation that the waiver be denied, the BOCS approved both the application and the waiver.

        Fast forward five months to last Tuesday and what do you find on the BOCS agenda, a request to pave that same road using $500K in State grant funds from VDOT’s “High Volume Unpaved Road Program”, a request that had to be approved immediately as the deadline for applications is next Saturday.

        It is worth noting that the request was withdrawn when several of the squeakiest wheels in the County cried foul and demanded that any such grants be used on more deserving “unpaved roads” whose “unsafe” nature had been used as leverage in recent land use cases. At the end of the day our “wise” leaders withdrew the grant request and left the $500K on the table, I guess substituting a road that truly merited those funds was too much to ask of them.

    • “If companies could produce power from renewable sources at prices well below those of Dominion, we’d see tremendous pressure on the General Assembly to rewrite state law. ” They can, easily, in daylight; and, you will see the pressure. But as Larry says, you still need the grid and night-time generators.

  7. Thanks for your insanity here, Steve. When Norfolk is underwater, I will think of you.

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