Dominion solar farm. Photo credit: Dominion.

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

In light of recent denials by local governing bodies, there has been some skepticism expressed on this blog as to whether the Commonwealth could meet its goals on solar energy. Going against recent trends, however, has been the city of Chesapeake.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, the city council recently approved an application to build a 900-acre solar farm. This most recent approval about doubles the size of three previously-approved projects. It is estimated the project will cost $100 million. The company anticipates generating 118 megawatts, enough to power about 20,000 homes.

The land involved is now prime farmland. An interesting aspect of this project is that is an amalgamation of acreage from multiple owners.

The city of Chesapeake was created in 1963 through the merger of the City of South Norfolk and rural Norfolk County. It is the Commonwealth’s second largest city in area and still has an active rural, agricultural community. Over half the county, about 167 square miles, is zoned for agriculture and more than 30,000 acres are devoted to cropland. The city’s comprehensive plan calls for keeping an area of rural land that will be “a thriving working landscape, with programs that encourage new farming economy enterprises and rural industries that are compatible with the preserved rural character of the area.” The city even has an Open Space and Agricultural Preservation Program, where the government buys development rights from landowners.

It was against this backdrop that the debate over the solar panel project played out. (The Virginian-Pilot article described this debate in an earlier article.) Several planning commission and city council members expressed concern over the continued loss of farmland and the resultant changes in the nature of their community. However, as others pointed out, due to many factors, including the cost of buying and maintaining equipment, it is getting harder for anything other than a large-scale farming operation to make a profit. Furthermore, existing farmers are getting older and fewer young people want to go into farming. One member pointed out that proposals such as that for solar panels provide an alternative for farmers who no longer wish or are no longer able to farm their land. For several city council and planning commission members, it came down to, as one member put it, ““I happen to have a personal belief that individual landowners have a right to utilize their property within reason the way they want to.”

One of the landowners affected had been leasing his land to someone else to farm. In explaining his decision to enter into a contract with the solar panel company, he said, “For the first time in 51 years that I know of that we have been leasing … we can see a light where we can lock in our farm for 35 years, we know it will be secure and we will actually make a profit.” Another, whose family had farmed their land, or leased it to others for farming, since the 1940s, explained that farming doesn’t pay anymore and the project would prevent any future housing development there, which has been creeping up nearby and would put additional burden on roads and other services. “It’s time for a change,” he said.

My Soapbox. If Chesapeake officials hold any hope that comprehensive plans or buffer zones will keep development from gobbling up farmland, they only need look east to their next-door neighbor, Virginia Beach. I have been traveling for 18 years to Sandbridge in the traditionally agricultural area of Pungo in Virginia Beach. Each year, it seems, there is another field that is sprouting houses rather than corn or soybeans. Each year, the development creeps closer to the village of Pungo.

A large mass of solar panels is not attractive. But, neither is a bunch of large houses on tiny lots in a large open field. At least, the solar panels are better for the health of the soil over time. Furthermore, I can think of at least one agricultural-related enterprise that would be compatible with solar panels. That 900 acres would support an awful lot of native plants, which in turn could support millions of bees that could produce a lot of honey for anyone enterprising enough to put out and maintain the hives.

(I owe a debt to the Virginian-Pilot for the headline.)


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Comments

66 responses to “From Farming Corn to Electrons”

  1. Steve Gillispie Avatar
    Steve Gillispie

    Great article. Particularly appreciated the comments around why some farmers see this as positive for them and the community.

    I am seeing a lot of these around Deltaville. What conversation is going on around better landscaping them with perhaps a tree buffer around the project?

    1. vicnicholls Avatar
      vicnicholls

      Landscaping with trees and fences are about the only thing they can manage here.

  2. vicnicholls Avatar
    vicnicholls

    For the record, I was there at the meeting.

    Active rural agri community? Not really. Farming does pay, we have a lot of smaller groups that farm. I know some in the Grassfield area of Chesapeake, which is close to Hickory/Great Bridge.

    We’re a city not a county.

    We’re losing massive amounts of farmland to anything other than farming. When FTW goes, we will go straight to Hell with it. I was one of those that doesn’t care for this – the major family who bought the land has trusts, and what happens is when all the 70/80 year olds die, they can then decide to sell the land.

    The OSAP program is funded by $45-$65K yearly donations from those solar farms. In other words, your electric bill pays for it.

    The VP is a leftist propaganda paper. It isnt’ worth the paper its printed on.

    Solar panels aren’t better for the health of the soil. I suggested a couple of years ago when the city council and planning commission were working on the solar ordinances for the city, to incorporate animals. Those grass eating animals would fertilize the soil and leave it in better shape. Putting in concrete, which is what they’ll do for all those panels, aint going to make things better. I addressed the runoff, not one person really did (behind the scenes I got something but you can’t trust anything not in writing, and given the council, even that you can’t trust).

    They really didn’t address the airport, that is going to bite them in the tail at some point. One lawsuit against the city for putting the panels there, that’s all it will take.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I like your idea about putting grass-eating animals in with solar panels. Did the city go along with that idea? Would the landowners of the proposed project or already-approved projects be able to do that?

      I was surprised at your comment on concrete. I followed up with research and from what I can read, the solar panels are mounted on piles and driven into the ground with little or no concrete used. There has been more and more experimentation with agricultural uses that are compatible with the presence of solar panels.

      https://renovussolar.com/renovus-solar-resources/what-is-a-solar-farm/

      https://rmi.org/solar-panels-the-ultimate-companion-planting-tool/

      https://fraserssolar.com.au/faq/how-much-concrete-is-necessary-for-the-farms-construction/

      1. vicnicholls Avatar
        vicnicholls

        No Dick, they didn’t. I’ve said it for several years, NC farmers were implementing it because not only did it improve the soil, get rid of grasses and weeds, but became another avenue to sell organic meet. This council does not think like that. I don’t know, the solar ordinances/planning doesn’t disallow it, but no one is into it. Its just throw them up and that’s it. There is no FORWARD thinking in this city. From what was said last night “concrete” was used and it sounds more like pads than piles. No one disputed the concrete. I can be wrong, but ye gods they shouldn’t have said concrete and no one correct us.

    2. How’s Chris Price working out as the City Manager? Perhaps we shouldn’t have removed the warning label from him.

      1. vicnicholls Avatar
        vicnicholls

        Tell me more, shoot I’d give you a PM if I could. Wouldn’t matter if you removed the warning label around here. Get my drift?

        1. Bacon has my contact info.

          1. vicnicholls Avatar
            vicnicholls

            I’ll get him.

      2. vicnicholls Avatar
        vicnicholls

        Hey Mom, Jim says can you send your contact information to him. Doesn’t have it. He’s got mine and I’ve asked him to send it to you.

      3. vicnicholls Avatar
        vicnicholls

        @thederecho Mom he can’t find your info can you please contact him again?

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      How about squirrels? They could chew the wires.

      “Our minds are made up! Your facts do not sway us.”

      1. Brian Leeper Avatar
        Brian Leeper

        Surely a proper installation would encase the wires in metallic conduit that squirrels could not chew through?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          How To Protect Your Car From Wire-Gnawing Squirrels

          https://www.allstate.com/tr/car-insurance/stop-squirrels-chewing-on-car-wires.aspx

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Short answer — Garage-kept.

          2. Brian Leeper Avatar
            Brian Leeper

            That works till you get mice in your garage. I had mice in my garage build a nest on the oil fill of my car in less than 24 hours.

            Those Victor electronic mouse traps work very well using Nutri-Grain bar chunks as bait… you just want to make sure you check them more often than once a month!

          3. WayneS Avatar

            One winter some mice in my garage filled the exhaust system of one of my motorcycles with dry dog food. In the spring when I started the bike for the first time the pieces of dog food shot out the tailpipe and into the garage door. The rat-a-tat noise sounded something like machinegun fire.

            It was quite alarming, and it led to me adding a step to my motorcycle winterization process: “Insert racquetball in end of tail pipe.”

          4. Brian Leeper Avatar
            Brian Leeper

            LOL! Imagine if the mouse had still been in there…what a mess!

      2. WayneS Avatar

        Squirrels are good.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Tasty too. Just don’t tell the women folk what’s in the pot, er, kettle.

          1. WayneS Avatar

            Squirrel Pot Pie.

  3. Thomas Hadwin Avatar
    Thomas Hadwin

    The development of utility-scale solar in Virginia is more to increase shareholder profits than it is to create a cleaner, more reliable, and lower-cost energy system in Virginia. By owning the solar facilities, Dominion requires ratepayers to repay about 230% of the project cost, on a net present value basis. The large solar facilities also requires more transmission lines to be built, which is also a profit center for the utility.

    If independent developers were not hobbled in their ability to build .5 to 5 MW solar facilities in previously developed locations such as commercial and government buildings – and sell the energy direct to the customer using a PPA, the cost to the customer and other ratepayers would be much lower.

    Our agricultural system needs to be re-imagined just as our energy system does. Continued reliance on only large industrial facilities for both agriculture and energy fails to heed the lessons learned in the computer and telecommunications revolutions.

    1. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      “The large solar facilities also requires more transmission lines to be built, which is also a profit center for the utility.”

      Please explain why this is not a cost center as opposed to profit center. Not arguing the point; just a query.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        They get to add 10 percent to the actual cost, which is included in their rate schedule.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        If you check , you’ll find that there are existing corridors for transmission lines and that’s where the developers try to build them.

        The 5000 acre solar farm in Spotsylvania sits astride a major transmission line:

        https://www.virginiamercury.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/spotsy_visual-300×225.png

        Many of them do.

      3. Thomas Hadwin Avatar
        Thomas Hadwin

        Whenever Dominion Energy Virginia builds a new facility, a Rate Adjustment Clause is created that repays the cost of the facility in full, plus the cost of financing, plus a guaranteed rate of return. By 2030 the SCC predicts that RACs will comprise 60% of the typical residential customer’s bill. But the charges going to the RACs don’t appear on your bill.

        On a net present value basis, ratepayers repay Dominion about 230% of the cost of a project. If it is a generating station, we pay for the energy generated separately.

        A new substation would be required even if the transmission line ran through the solar facility. If the solar is owned by an independent developer, they might be required to make a payment to Dominion for new facilities required to connect it to the grid. In any case, Dominion would make a profit from it.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          In the Spotsylvania solar farm case, I’m not sure those are Dominion power lines though and the substation was already there I think.

          here:
          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f2ced76c74ffd3b7de333a439812ecf9aae3ab921ea107518f8d17fa262ea030.jpg

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    But where will we grow the corn to convert to ethanol to add to our gasoline? On the other hand, this means we can eat our food crops instead of burning them in our cars.

    1. Brian Leeper Avatar
      Brian Leeper

      Corn grows very well in “flyover country”.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I have heard such rumors.

        1. Brian Leeper Avatar
          Brian Leeper

          I’ve seen it. Nothing but cornfields for the most part from one end of the Ohio Turnpike to the other end of the Indiana Tollroad.

          BTW, you can drive through an entire state on those roads for less than the HOT tolls from Manassas to DC.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Have you included the mind numbing boredom into the cost comparison? When traffic is moving, the oone thing the drive from Manassas to DC isn’t is mind numbing.

          2. Brian Leeper Avatar
            Brian Leeper

            I find the scenery on that drive to be very interesting, actually. Especially the large irrigation systems used to keep that corn watered. I have never seen anything like that in Virginia.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            This thing on a highly banned steroid…
            https://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/vD0AAOSwYxBcxGZw/s-l400.jpg

    2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      Biogas is coming. Animal waste to fuel along with biomas specifically grown to produce fuel (not corn). These would be more compatible with an agricultural land use than solar. But solar is a better land use than houses to be sure… unless the solar is installed ON the houses that is….

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Or, sod roof.

  5. Steve Gillispie Avatar
    Steve Gillispie

    vivnicholls and hadwin, great additions. Are the councils imposing any requirements regarding soil or aesthetics? These things are an aesthetic blight whatever their value.
    Are there considerations for what happens when the solar panels wear out or for some reason these solar farms are no longer needed or wanted?

    1. vicnicholls Avatar
      vicnicholls

      You are kidding me right? No. The only things they can manage are fences and trees. They do have some frippary about no herbicides for the grass. Other than that, nothing that really strikes you. The only thing they managed for this one, which is in the way of the airport (and they blew that off), was to keep the panels lower than the trees/fence. I also asked (again!) about renewing panels and cleaning them. Not a word, not one. So 35 years is how long they think the panels are going to last. The solar farms? It all depends on who is alive – and it wont’ be our current council members.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Corn is the primary U.S. feed grain, accounting for more than 95 percent of total feed grain production and use. More than 90 million acres of land are planted to corn, with the majority of the crop grown in the Heartland region.Mar 5, 2021
    https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/corn-and-other-feedgrains/feedgrains-sector-at-a-glance/

    Roughly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is refined into ethanol.Mar 30, 2020
    https://www.agriculture.com › news

    Solar Megawatts Per Acre of Land
    Estimating the solar energy generated per acre, a solar development that on average produces 1 GWh per year, requires around 2.8 acres of land. Taking this into account, on every acre, the plant produces an average of 0.357 GWh or 357 MWh of electricity per year.
    https://www.theenergyfix.com › sola…

    Among his findings are: An acre of U.S. corn yields about 7,110 pounds of corn for processing into 328 gallons of ethanol. But planting, growing and harvesting that much corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels and costs $347 per acre, according to Pimentel’s analysis.Aug 6, 2001
    https://news.cornell.edu › 2001/08

    22 KWhr per gallon of E100

  7. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Corn is the primary U.S. feed grain, accounting for more than 95 percent of total feed grain production and use. More than 90 million acres of land are planted to corn, with the majority of the crop grown in the Heartland region.Mar 5, 2021

    Roughly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is refined into ethanol.Mar 30, 2020

    Solar Megawatts Per Acre of Land
    Estimating the solar energy generated per acre, a solar development that on average produces 1 GWh per year, requires around 2.8 acres of land. Taking this into account, on every acre, the plant produces an average of 0.357 GWh or 357 MWh of electricity per year.

    Among his findings are: An acre of U.S. corn yields about 7,110 pounds of corn for processing into 328 gallons of ethanol. But planting, growing and harvesting that much corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels and costs $347 per acre, according to Pimentel’s analysis.Aug 6, 2001

    22 KWhr per gallon of E100

    1. LarrytheG Avatar
      LarrytheG

      yes, that’s the hard reality. If we convert to electric cars, how does that work? Less corn for ethanol, plant more trees or solar panels?

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        More Maker’s Mark…

        Posting this so my SFFF** can call me a drunk. Speaking of which, blocking on Discus sucks. Most sites don’t show a blocked arse at all. Discus only suppresses the SFF’s words.

        **short fat f* friend

        1. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
          energyNOW_Fan

          Blocking? Am I the only person seeing everything?

          1. vicnicholls Avatar
            vicnicholls

            Yes, NN and LG never were on here to be anything other than trolls.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            well for a number of years before there was a wacadoodle infestation…. ;-). I yearn
            for the wacadoodle-free days in the past on BR.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Oh, how shall I answer that one?

      2. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
        energyNOW_Fan

        My guess ethanol will be mandated to at least 15% to hold famers as whole as possible as EV’s are further mandated by the Dems…

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          I don’t think that can be done without screwing up a lot of equipment.

          But think about it. Folks are saying we’re running out of farmland and 40% of the corn crop doesn’t go for food and we still have so much food we don’t know what to do with all of it.

          If Farmland were REALLY “scarce” , it would cost out the wazoo and so would food.

          1. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
            energyNOW_Fan

            E15% is probably feasible in most vehicles by now. I hate 10% ethanol but it’s not my policy. Based on that, 15% is coming.

            As far as farmland shortage, we can always do the Brazil thing and chop down rain forests to make ethanol, and blame fossil fuels for climate change. We are basically doing similar thing since corn is less eco-friendly than sugar cane. If it wasn’t for the lost rain forests, ethanol from sugar cane might make slight eco-sense.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            We don’t really have a farmland shortage. It’s mostly yet another made-up boogeyman thang.

            Small family farms cannot compete against the mega-farms, just like mom-and-pop stores in small towns can compete against the big-boxes.

            There are dozens of small towns throughout Va that are almost dead economically, and they are surrounded by dozens/hundreds of family-farms that are no longer farmed.

            Solar farms are typically is located near transmission line corridors, ideally near an existing sub-station – so the locations for them are limited. The vast majority of family-farms are simply not ideal locations for solar farms and not in any danger anyhow.

            Just follow the transmission line corridors and that’s where you’ll find the existing and proposed solar farms.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    One third of the current electric power in the world is provided by renewables and EIA projects that number will reach 50% by 2050.

    People who own land are entitled to develop it. That’s why farmland is converted to homes, highways, schools, landfills, pipelines, power plants, fields where sewage sludge is put, cell towers, and solar panels.

    Some types of farming and pasture ARE compatible with solar in dual use.

    But I did have a question. Maybe Tom H can answer.

    For a given acre of land – if you wanted to reduce carbon , would one acre of trees be better than one acre of solar panels?

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      No Larry. No, they’re not. It’s amazing how many conservatives fight landowners’ attempts to do that.

  9. Bacon’s Rebellion needs to explore the future of farming in Virginia. Aside from the factors that Dick mentions here, another factor driving traditional family farms out of business is the rise of greenhouse farming or fruits and leafy vegetables. Small farmers in Virginia can’t compete against these heavily capitalized operations (typically $50 million or more) that utilize the latest scientific principles and are capable of producing crops year-round. At least leasing their land provides a reliable, long-term source of income for some.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar
      LarrytheG

      Greenhouses ARE farming! Big time. More efficient. more productive. We’d subsidize less productive farms that compete against the bigger, more productive operations?

      Out in places like IOWA – if you don’t have a thousand acres and a million dollars in capital – you are squeezed out, gobbled up by the big boys!

      I sympathize with small farmers, but we should no more subsidize them than we’d do Mom & Pops competing with Walmarts.

      We have PLENTY of farm-land, we have a surplus of farmland – because of the bigger, more productive farms. The small family farm is an artifact of a horse*& buggy era to a certain extent. Take a drive out to the “country” in Virginia and what you’ll see is thousands and thousands of open fields no longer farmed because they can’t compete with the bigger farms and we have more than enough food from the bigger farms.

      We have so much food in this country that our prices are lower than many other countries. We have to provide price supports for some commodities. We give surplus food away.

      Small farmers can do greenhouse operations for specialty plants and crops. Go to your local Lowes and Home Depot garden centers… billions of dollars spent , not on food from farms but decorative plants and shrubbery!

      Let the market work. Don’t subsidize inefficient production.

    2. vicnicholls Avatar
      vicnicholls

      When we’re talking 900-1000 acres and they couldn’t make a go of it, I have to wonder. I know folks with less than that that are.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        It depends on what you are growing and where you are geographically. In places like Iowa and Nebraska , the farms are huge AND productive and the economies of scale result in huge harvests and low prices per bushel. Smaller farmers cannot grow some crops and keep their costs that low so that the margin between their costs and what it can sell for is so low, it may not be viable as a living income.

        Virginia STILL has a lot of farming, even small farms, but there are far fewer of them than before because the bigger, more productive farms essentially outcompete them.

        You can see thousands and thousands of acres of abandoned farmland on any trip through rural Virginia even though many counties will allow it to be designated for ultra low taxes in “land use”. Those taxes are deferred and due when the land is sold or inherited so if the farmer can sell to a developer for homes, he/she often will.

        Finally, a LOT of abandoned farmland also sits along these Byrd era secondary roads. The fields are hardly seen.

        It’s hard for me to fathom the opposition on scenic grounds when all over Virginia there are huge swaths of land corridors with large transmission towers and power lines on them that can’t be shielded with berms and vegetation but all of us take them for granted. we don’t even really “see” them but watch what happens if a new one is proposed near residential homes. Same thing with cell towers. Huge opposition. They want the power and the cell service but not the visual! Solar is EASY to shield compared to power lines and cell towers and not even a whimper from rural folks as long as they are not near residential.

        Also interesting how the politics play out.

        Conservatives are all over those who oppose pipelines but all in opposing solar farms?

        no?

    3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      Aside: Those greenhouse operations rely heavily on water soluble fertilizers. The primary feedstock of those fertilizers… natural gas….

      1. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        Most of Ag relies on fossil fuels probably.

      2. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
        energyNOW_Fan

        Oh how terrible that is! And here I thought you were going to be saying the groundwater contamination from fertilizers and pesticides were the problem, not to mention using up all the world’s limited phosphorous supply.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          Oh geeze.. we have to MINE phosphorous just like lithium. For gawd sake! Here I was thinking Lithium was bad compared to not mining it but heckfire… we’ve been doing this other mining stuff for other stuff all along!

          in terms of greenhouses, I’ve heard that they are much less harmful to the environment. Yes, they use fertilizers, pesticides and natural gas – but much less than open field farming.

          Bill Gates has said that our problems in trying to reduce greenhouse gases is that we don’t realize how much energy we use in farming, manufacturing, etc… and the answers are much tougher.

      3. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
        energyNOW_Fan

        Oh how terrible that is! And here I thought you were going to be saying the groundwater contamination from fertilizers and pesticides were the problem, not to mention using up all the world’s limited phosphorous supply.

  10. WayneS Avatar

    “I have been traveling for 18 years to Sandbridge in the traditionally agricultural area of Pungo in Virginia Beach. Each year, it seems, there is another field that is sprouting houses rather than corn or soybeans.”

    You should have seen it in 1970…

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I wish that I could have.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar
      LarrytheG

      Should have seen Spotsylvania 40 years ago.

      We still have corn fields, but they back up to townhouses and subdivisions.

      The biggest thing to hit Spotsylvania before the Solar Farm was the North Anna Nuclear Plant and Lake Anna.

      All those farms are now lake and homes.

  11. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
    energyNOW_Fan

    I recall writing to former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb in opposition to the renewable fuels act of 2006, which I saw as a bust. He wrote back and said that bill was crucial to Virginia because we would converting the farms to Switch Grass crop. I rested my case, but the bill passed anyways and that gave us the corn ethanol volume sales mandates ( as a fallback upon failure of the Democrat Congress’s cellulosic switchgrass-to-ethanol dream envisioned in the Bill).

    1. LarrytheG Avatar
      LarrytheG

      looks like switchgrass on abandoned farm Fields is not exactly a profit generator…

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