DEQ Approves Utility-Scale Solar Permit in Buckingham

solar_panelsby James A. Bacon

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has issued a permit for construction of a 19.8-megawatt, utility-scale solar project in Buckingham County, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday. Construction of the 200-acre facility is expected to begin early in 2017 and be finished by the end of the year. The cost is estimated to run between $30 million and $35 million.

DEQ Director David Paylor hinted that more solar projects are in the pipeline. “DEQ is looking forward to issuing more of these renewable energy permits in the future,” he said. “Our priority will be to take the steps necessary to protect Virginia’s environment while helping the Commonwealth become a leader in renewable energy production.”

The project is being developed by Firestone Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Virginia Solar, headed by Richmonder Matthew Meares.

“We are very pleased and thankful to Buckingham County and the Commonwealth of Virginia for supporting a 100 percent Virginia-owned and operated utility scale solar developer by approving our Firestone solar project’s state permit,” Meares said in the press release. “We hope this is the first of many such projects by Virginia Solar in the Commonwealth promoting Governor McAuliffe’s goals of helping the environment creating new economic drivers, utilizing Virginia products and services, and attracting business to the Commonwealth.”

Few other details were available about the project from the press release. However, the project has been in the works since at least August 2015. An article in the Farmville Herald indicated that the facility would include “ancillary support facilities and electrical interconnections … to be transmitted on a Dominion distribution line.”

The project could employ 150 workers during the construction phase, but full-time employment after construction would be minimal. Stated the Farmville Herald:

The project would have up to three employees every two months on-site for system inspections, vegetation management and preventative maintenance. … In addition, one employee may be on-site for security at any time, according to the application. There are not expected to be any permanent employees stationed at the site.

Bacon’s bottom line: So much for the miraculous green-energy job creation machine: a couple of low-skilled, part-time jobs. Solar may (or may not) be good energy policy, but promises that it will spur job creation are a cruel delusion. (Not that the alternative, gas-fired power plants, are a big job creator either on a jobs-per-kilowatt basis. But power plant jobs do require a high level of training and education, and they pay well.)

As always seems to be the case with solar projects, the economics of the Firestone deal remain a mystery. It’s not clear who will buy the solar power — whether Firestone will sell into the PJM Interconnection wholesale market or whether it has lined up a specific customer take the electricity, as in Amazon Web Services. Another possibility is that the developer will just flip the project to Dominion Virginia Power, as has happened with other projects in Virginia.

The up-front cost of about $1,625 per kilowatt is more than twice the cost of a state-of-the-art gas-fired plant, but it is considerably cheaper than the $2,250 per kilowatt for the recently announced Oceana Naval Air Station. (That may not be an apples-to-apples comparison, however, because the Ocean deal may have included infrastructure improvements not included in the Buckingham project.) If Virginia Solar is selling its power to a private customer, the cost is immaterial to the general public. But if the power will be passed on to Virginia rate payers, cost is very germane.

There is little information about the developer. Virginia Solar doesn’t even have a website. (The domain name is available for purchase.) Matthew Meares, the principal behind Virginia Solar, describes his specialty as “solar and wind financial structuring” on his LinkedIn page. That page also describes him as managing director of Richmond-based Sunworks NC, which has a one-page website. The company’s core competencies include financial modeling of various “tax equity and debt structures,” capital structuring, development assistance, technical due diligence, and energy production analysis.

There is a cottage industry of entrepreneurs who do the leg work of identifying prime solar sites, consolidating the land parcels, lining up the regulatory permits and then flipping the project to a player with deeper pockets. The ideal solar site is located near an existing electric transmission line that requires minimal investment to connect to the grid. It is in a rural area where NIMBYs won’t object to its presence and local governments will welcome the boost to the tax base. It also helps when negotiating the acquisition of land parcels to be a no-name firm rather than Dominion Virginia Power, Appalachian Power or any other company that cries out, “Deep pockets!”

Update: Reader Erik Curren pointed me to the website, which provides a bit more detail. Virginia Solar LLC was behind a 17-megawatt project in Powhatan County, projected to be installed in 2016. “Dominion Virginia Power intends to purchase this project and has submitted it to the Virginia State Corporation Commission for approval,” states the home page.

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22 responses to “DEQ Approves Utility-Scale Solar Permit in Buckingham

  1. Here’s an article in today’s WaPo, right up LarryG’s alley, about how all this solar gen activity is driving a parallel need for more natural gas cycling units. An interesting new study of this:

    • yup – this is what I’ve been telling ya’ll.. wind/solar without gas does not “work” – and folks like Jim forever pretend that wind and solar can’t work “by themselves” so they are not “viable”.

      solar and gas are complementary – and have to be – and if you had a choice between a solo combined cycle plant verses a solar-gas hybrid what would be better?

      peaker plants are less fuel efficient than combined cycle – but when you mate them to solar – what happens?

  2. You raise some good points here, Jim.

    I’d never heard of this company either, and their website was hard to find, but I did finally locate a cheap, placeholder site for them:

    Obviously, they don’t care much about communicating with the public or the media. They just seem to be insiders talking to insiders.

    And that gets to the other issues you raise, especially about job creation and cost for solar. I think you have to distinguish Big Utility Solar, as this project is, from small distributed generation.

    Big Utility solar doesn’t create many jobs. But unfortunately, it tends to be expensive per installed watt.

    Small, distributed solar, done in arrays of 5KW to 500 KW on rooftops and fields all over the state, is better in both ways. It creates more jobs and, when all costs are rightly considered, often costs less per watt installed.

    Compare with our neighboring states, which both have much more solar than we do.

    This announcement seems to show that Virginia is starting to follow the North Carolina model for solar: mostly big arrays done by utility-scale contractors.

    That may not be the most effective way to solarize the state. Perhaps the model in Maryland is more promising: more small solar installations done largely on rooftops.

  3. Jim, I’m all for seeing diverse solar development in VA, if only to give the lie to the notion that Dominion or the Commonwealth is hostile to solar generation. All we need are those State tax credits to be the equal of NC. But let’s keep the impact of this Buckingham plant in perspective: 20 MW for solar, as compared with, say, 1200 MW for a new nuclear unit. And yet, it’s going to cover 200 acres? That’s an inefficient use of the land, even for a utility-designed solar collector. Solar generation design can do better.

    • I respect your point of view, but the feedback that I have heard from larger scale solar developers in this area is that it is not easy for them to develop the types of projects that are possible in other states because of the policies that Dominion has implemented. I think we have a disconnect between the general concept and the actual reality of the situation. Erik has some first hand experience with this with the City of Staunton.

      • Thanks Tom! In Staunton, we’re lucky enough to have the state’s pioneering, home-grown distributed solar installer, Secure Futures. Years before the big guys started coming in from North Carolina, Secure Futures was doing commercial-scale solar arrays on colleges, public schools and churches all over the state. Those projects save customers money by giving them solar right on site, the most efficient way to do solar. It’s hard for huge utility-scale arrays located in rural areas far from end-users to match the efficiency of solar on your own rooftop.

  4. I’m with Erik in noting that more jobs are involved in distributed generation compared to utility scale. And with Acbar – 200 acres is high for a plant of this size.

    The $1625 /kw seems high compared to the $1400 that others have obtained. But remember that solar at twice the capital cost of natural gas yields energy at the same price. Solar prices are coming down, natural gas prices will be going up.

  5. Direct job creation by solar development is irrelevant. If it leads to cheaper and more reliable electricity, as I believe it will, then the whole state will gain. Building more of these distributed sources will strengthen the Dominion system. It’s too bad the General Assembly rolled over to Dominion and created a disincentive for homeowner solar. We should bring back real net metering and remove the cap on authorized solar capacity. The cap is laughably low — what, 1 percent, isn’t it? Obviously that’s meant to protect legacy investment in utility-owned generation facilities. Better public policy would be to adopt a new business model that lets us all take advantage of emerging solar technology.

    • Can you provide more detail on this “1% cap”? I’d like to track it down — who imposed, how expressed.

      • Acbar,

        This is the current net metering regulation in Virginia:

        “Virginia’s current net metering law covers residential systems up to 10 kW and commercial systems up to 500 kW. Eligible technologies include solar, wind and hydropower systems intended primarily to offset part or all of a customer’s requirements for electricity. Enrollment is open on a first-come, first-served basis until the rated generating capacity owned and operated by customer-generators in the state reaches 1% of each electric distribution company’s peak load for the previous year.”

        These limits constrain a developer attempting to offset retail rates for a customer including the requirement that the solar facility be located on property contiguous to the meter location, which hampers government building installations.

  6. wait a minute – Jim “sneers” : ” So much for the miraculous green-energy job creation machine: a couple of low-skilled, part-time jobs. Solar may (or may not) be good energy policy, but promises that it will spur job creation are a cruel delusion.”

    ah Jim – the job creation was NEVER in the on-site area – and besides – I bet if it DID require on-site personnel – you’d be citing that as an extra cost to solar whereas you trumpet those extra costs for other power generation – like when you “embrace” labor-intensive nukes!!!!!

    You have to twist every which way from Sunday to maintain your anti-solar mentality!!!! geeze!

    • Wind and solar have been promoted as big job creators. That’s a fact. I’m not making that up.

      There are good reasons to support solar. Job creation is not one of them, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.

      As for your insinuations of anti-solar bias, I noted in the post that building gas-fired power plants really can’t be justified on the basis of job creation either.

      I’m all in favor if solar if it can be integrated into the electric grid as cheaply and reliably as the alternatives.

      • Jim – it’s in the manufacturing of solar and the devices to connect solar to the grid – not in on-site. It was NEVER for on-site! The lack of on-site was said to be an advantage over other forms that did need on-site.

        re: ” I noted in the post that building gas-fired power plants really can’t be justified on the basis of job creation either.”

        but just a day or so ago – you were TOUTING “embracing” Nukes – spending money on people to promote and build Nukes – right?

        re: ” I’m all in favor if solar if it can be integrated into the electric grid as cheaply and reliably as the alternatives.”

        Not when you won’t use unbiased apple-to-apple comparisons of costs and benefits guy.

        Do you INCLUDE the capital and labor costs of gas wells and pipelines when you compare combined-cycle gas – to solar?

        How about Nukes? do you really do an apple-to-apple comparison of costs compared to solar?

        so when you say : ” I’m all in favor if solar if it can be integrated into the electric grid as cheaply and reliably as the alternatives.”
        I’m not at all sure you are doing a level-playing field – apple-to-apple comparison.

        when did anyone claim that solar was going to generate jobs – on site?

        have you got a cite for that? That seems totally counter-intuitive when we know the solar, once constructed, just sits there.

        what in the world did you think personnel were going to do on solar sites anyhow?

        geeze guy…

        • For the record, I dispute several statements made here. I just don’t have time to rebut you point by point. Not that it would do any good because you continue to mischaracterize what I say, and no number of corrections make the slightest impression.

          • and for the record – I feel that you mischaracterize these issues in your blog posts, then refuse to address the questions that arise in the comments.

            For the record – also – I’ve said many times that solar by itself is not viable – no question … but I’ve also pointed out that hybridizing solar with gas – is a solution -to that

            and I’ve provided linked to back that up – and so has Acbar.

            when you do that – Solar becomes a valuable resource that can be “harvested” – WHEN it is available and use gas when it’s not.

            yet you persist is using what amounts to a double standard when claiming that solar has disadvantages that cannot be compensated for – the second part that I disagree with.

            it CAN be compensated for – with known technologies – peaker gas plants and now advanced combined cycle gas plants that can quickly ramp up or down in response to changing conditions on the grid.

            these are not my opinions – they are realities:

            ” GE’s Gas-Fired Plants Could Enable More Wind and Solar Power”


            over and over I have posted these articles and over and over you just ignore them in your commentary.


            When I post these things – and provide the links – how is that mischaracterizing?

            Do you just disagree and reject the links?

          • I try to be fair in the comments but I do think you clearly have a bias in some of your thinking and I feel that the other side needs to be represented.

            I think this is especially true in your anti-govt rants that far outnumber your pro-govt settlement pattern posts.

            Over the years – you have shifted farther and farther to the right – to my dismay and so there is a need to represent the other side.

            If I am guilty of mischaracterizing – then don’t say you don’t have time – call me to account – and others here can do that also… as long as we keep it civil – dialogue and discourse benefits all of us if we keep an open mind.

  7. the other curious thing here is that in almost all the other solar initiatives in Virginia – it was the SCC involved… running the show and here – no SCC… just DEQ why?

    • The SCC is not involved in this project, as yet, because it is being built by a non-utility and its size is less than 100 MW. The General Assembly enacted a law a couple of sessions back that authorized DEQ to issue a rule permitting the construction of solar and wind generation of less than 100 MW.

      If DVP or another regulated utility wished to acquire this facility, once built, the SCC would have to approve the utility acquisition.

      • Does DEQ have to approve all of the 3rd party solar installs and to this point the reporting has just focused on the SCC even than DEQ was also involved (but not reported)?

        “… a 100 percent Virginia-owned and operated utility scale solar ….. “We hope this is the first of many such projects….”

        if this project is approvable with SCC/DVP – then what keeps many others of this size from also being approved similarly?

        200 acres – is a size that are very much in abundance across Virginia – many people have inherited/owned vacant land no longer farmed or logged…. that the owner could just sign an agreement with a 3rd party – and get lease money the same as if they had a cell tower or other opportunity – even if it only paid the taxes and insurance – that would benefit them.

        So no way for Dominion or the SCC to say “no” for this scale of 3rd party solar?

        If this is true – then these things should be sprouting up all over the place – and as they multiply – start to have a real impact on the grid in some regions where solar becomes concentrated – rural areas come to mind where electricity demand is relatively low and a high percentage of solar .

        what argument would DVP/SCC to oppose other 200 acre 3rd party projects that was not used on this one?

        • I’m lost here — Rowinguy answered your question, didn’t he? The SCC is not involved if less than 100 MW and DVP isn’t buying the finished plant. Sales here will be either direct to a consumer on-site or to the grid wholesale market (PJM). So I agree with you, “these things should be sprouting up all over the place” IF they make economic sense from the point of view of return on investment. That’s where State tax benefits can tip the scales and VA is deficient in that department; otherwise I just don’t see why VA isat a disadvantage for solar. As for the employment issue, Jim is correct, there are folks out there touting employment benefits from solar and it’s largely a bogus claim. Heck, the solar PV cells themselves are mostly made in China. Most of the on-site employment here is preparing the site, building the frame, the switchyard and transmission connection, and ongoing maintenance of these isn’t very labor intensive. As for “integrating solar into the electric grid,” what’s the problem? PJM, the grid operator, says they can handle it; DVP has tariffs on file with the SCC that say they will accommodate it if asked; and in this case DVP and the SCC are not involved at all (unless DVP later wants to buy the finished plant) because FERC (not the SCC) regulates the wholesale sale and transmission to the grid.

          • @Acbar – the impression I’ve been getting in the media and here in BR is that solar is going nowhere in Va because DVP is opposed to it and has gotten the GA to pass some laws that essentially make it uneconomic , net metering… etc..

            but if anyone can put up solar on a 200 acre plot of land – and make enough off of it to pay the taxes and then maybe make a few bucks with no skin off their nose – then why won’t that happen? Farmers gladly lease their land for cell towers and the like – just to pay the taxes!

            in terms of “employment”. yes there are folks touting it but it has never been for on-site employment – rather in the industry – manufacturing, installation, etc.

            what Bacon was saying about on-site employment was totally off the wall.. you cannot find an evidence for that statement anywhere !!!! Solar was always just going to sit there!

            and if anyone doubts the “industry” benefit – in the US – read this;

            “Clean-Energy Jobs Surpass Oil Drilling for First Time in U.S.

            The number of U.S. jobs in solar energy overtook those in oil and natural gas extraction for the first time last year, helping drive a global surge in employment in the clean-energy business as fossil-fuel companies faltered.
            Employment in the U.S. solar business grew 12 times faster than overall job creation, the International Renewable Energy Agency said in a report on Wednesday. ”

            what you are seeing is , in my view – a persistent bias on the part of Jim against solar. you can see it over and over in his many posts…. and I suspect, in part, because a lot of his reading is apparently on right-leaning sites – and the right in this country sees solar as a partisan issue…an “Obama” thing… a CPP thing, etc…

            Again – I’m not a die-hard supporter of SOLAR or have an attitude that ONLY renewables is acceptable. I support the use of gas – and I support Nukes once they get modernized and will passively shut down when trouble happens.

            But Jim – over and over and over and over – in post after post – gets his anti-solar licks in… He makes solars disadvantages – reasons to not adopt while he makes Nukes disadvantages – reasons to “embrace innovation”.

            totally one-sided… painfully and obviously so..

  8. Other salient facts…

    One megawatt if I understand correctly serves 500 or more households and so 20 megawatts would be what 10,000?

    Buckingham county has less than 8000 households….580 square miles – about 25 miles on a side:

    so is it wrong to say that – that one solar project will power all of Buckingham during the day?

    If that’s true – for rural Virginia at least – it would not take many of these scale solar to have significant impacts on the rural grid and if the grid can accommodate it – significant benefits – especially during high demand periods which would help reduce stress on regional grids.


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