Making Solar Power a Win-Win for Everyone

by Felix Garcia

There is a simple and common-sense approach to energy policy in Virginia. Go to the energy source which provides abundant, safe electricity at the least cost — solar.

Our company is called AgriSunPower (ASP). Along with our co-developer Hecate Energy, our thought process begins with a simple premise. Solar power is the cheapest and most reliable potential energy source which exists today. Why not look for ways to collaborate with a multitude of stakeholders to expand Virginia’s solar energy capacity to feed the growing appetite for green energy?

Chicago-based Hecate Energy is no stranger to Virginia’s burgeoning green energy scene. The company’s successful development of solar farms in Clarke County and Virginia’s Eastern Shore, later acquired by Dominion Energy, illustrate our approach to utility-scaled solar power generation. We base our pitch on economics and economic development. We seek projects in locations where local government believes that solar power is a big win for everybody, and we flip our facility to the local utility that has provided electricity to the community for generations.

”Everybody” encompasses a broad-based group of stakeholders: farmers/landowners, farmers/landowners’ neighbors, local governments, green energy advocates, environmentalists, and energy purchasers. It makes little sense for a company like ours, no  matter how noble our intentions, to go to a county where nobody wants is. We partner with localities (and their citizens) that view utility-scale solar development as a way to reinforce a county’s commitment to being “open for business.”

We acknowledge that what is acceptable in one locality may not be viewed the same way elsewhere. As we work with local officials, we are clear-eyed about the obstacles to the collaboration required to successfully develop a utility-scale solar farm. Let me offer some specific examples.

ASP’s activity in Virginia has focused on agricultural land owned by farmers who are often struggling to make ends meet in today’s depressed agricultural economy. A long-term lease on a farmer’s land for a solar farm can help ensure that a family farm will still be there for the next generation. ASP doesn’t seek an individual farmer’s most productive farm land. Land for solar generation needs only be flat enough to make the solar panel technology work efficiently. The landowner can derive the financial benefit from the creation of green energy on part of his land and keep the rest of his farm for traditional farming practices.

ASP is sensitive to a farmers’ neighbors and the greater community. We know that many people find solar panels visually unattractive. Maintaining the integrity of rural Virginia’s viewscape is a critical component of our outreach. Working with the farmers/landowners themselves, we take advantage of a farm’s topography, and then add eye-pleasing visual elements like trees and native plant species that promote bee pollination.

We engage local officials even before making the first outreach to local landowners. Solar farming can be a critical component of local economic development strategy, especially for a locality which seeks to recruit high-tech businesses that require green energy. Solar farms will not guarantee that high-tech jobs will magically materialize, but they do demonstrate that a county is “open for business” for manufacturers demanding green energy.

For ASP, collaborating with county governments means acknowledging their fiscal concerns. We want to be partners – not obstacles. Good schools are vital to a county’s economic development strategy. We structure deals to ensure that our solar farms boost the tax base and generate positive tax flow from the first year.

To accomplish all these goals, we engage citizens before the first shovel of dirt is thrown to identify areas of concern arising from utility-scale solar generation and finding ways to alleviate them. By working collaboratively with all stakeholders, we can demonstrate that fostering more affordable green energy is both good policy and good politics.

Making large utilities the bad guy for political purposes is not helpful. Legislation enacted by the General Assembly three years ago practically requires large electricity providers to partner with companies like ASP/Hecate. We also acknowledge the role political leaders can play, such as Governor Ralph Northam’s directive to make Virginia’s electric grid carbon-free by 2050 and the Southwest Virginia leaders who back building more green energy as a way to entice high-tech employers to their region. Boosting renewable electric generation as part of a rural economic development strategy requires the participation of all parties. Utilities, developers, local governments, landowners, neighbors, ratepayers and business consumers of green energy can all benefit.

Felix Garcia is founder and CEO of AgriSunPower LLC.

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15 responses to “Making Solar Power a Win-Win for Everyone

  1. Sounds good! AND all of Virginia’s Co-Ops would be a great place to expand.

  2. A very interesting posting by Mr. Garcia, well worth reading and thinking about. Clearly, he has figured out that working in advance with interested parties moves projects better than just jumping into them.

    I’d be interested in thoughtful responses to Benjamin Zycher’s October 10, 2019 article that challenges some of the assumptions about renewables. https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2019/10/28/the-trouble-with-renewable-energy/#slide-1

    • OK ..you asked for it and I hope you find my response ‘thoughtful’

      “the Green New Deal would yield no positive outcomes. They are all cost and no benefit, derived from falsehoods, environmentally destructive, anti-human, and authoritarian.”

      Almost nothing he ascribes to is based on demonstrated facts ….
      1. Cost …his analysis relies on no actual numbers, claiming renewables depend on “massive subsidies” and forgetting the annual $20 billion in tax write-off subsidies that go to all the fossil fuel industries.
      b. Capacity factors are better for fossil and therefore require massive additional renewables, even though capacity factors are included in the Levelized Costs comparison for various KW/hrs …See Lazards
      c. major disposal costs … no comparative numbers and no environmental costs included for fossil operations. For coal that number could run to 18 cents additional per KW/hr as calculated by Harvard Epstein study
      d. massive amounts of land … see NREL US Renewable Energy Technical Analysis – a gif-based study for requirements by state.

      There is no information on how he arrived at any of his statements …
      1. will increase the emissions of conventional pollutants… ?
      2. Only a very small temperature reduction. Even if that number is right the fact ignores the cumulative nature of atmospheric GHG and the 100+ time frame for the duration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
      3. Devalues humans who want more energy … No, GDP is divorcing from increased energy use as we use energy more efficiently.
      4. The hottest days occurred before 1960 …just flat out wrong.
      The average global temperature in June was 1.71 degrees F above the 20th-century average of 59.9 degrees, making it the hottest June in the 140-year record, according scientists to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
      Nine of the 10 hottest Junes have occurred since 2010.
      5. The disappearance of the summer Arctic sea ice, only under an extreme greenhouse-gas concentration path that, is not plausible…. BUT “Average Arctic sea ice coverage was 10.5% below average” – “for the second month in a row, warmth brought Antarctic sea-ice coverage to a new low for June.” NOAA

      The one place that he has some level of argument is that intermittency has not been totally solved although it is being dealt with in a variety of ways as we have discussed on this blog.

      I took the trouble to look up this author and while he has a very respectable academic background, he has been involved in “Cash for Comments” the group of writers who were put together to back up the tobacco industry and prevent the government from regulating it in any way. To me, that says enough about how seriously to take what he has to say, in addition to my disbelief that someone was actually writing such an article.

      • And scientists and professors who get paid for finding evidence of global warming and climate changes aren’t in the “Cash for Comments” business? Jane, you have a double standard. If someone argues things in support of your views, you are on board. But let someone disagree and you have disbelief that someone was actually writing “such an article.”

        • So, am I to take that to mean that those guys who put out the false statements to back up the tobacco industry, and whose PR campaign became a template for the false statements put out by the fossil fuel industries, were just earning a buck? That is is OK to deliberately put out false statements to back up industry claims?
          There is a very big difference between as ‘point of view’ and a set of facts.

  3. I’ve supported solar power as a way to preserve small farms — it only makes sense that “A long-term lease on a farmer’s land for a solar farm can help ensure that a family farm will still be there for the next generation.” And it bears repeating that solar panels are a benign presence that doesn’t poison the soil below the collector frames, that the frames and wires are relatively easy to remove, returning the land to agricultural use if that’s what the owner desires, or to parkland, et cetera, and that the visual impact of all those collectors usually can be screened from the nearest roads by intentional plantings.

    But there’s one big caveat: the solar developer must ensure, up front, by bond or otherwise, that the funds will be there to pay even this modest clean-up cost when the lease is up. What nobody wants is an abandoned solar farm with scrub bushes and trees growing up through rusting frames, left to ruin by a bankrupt corporate LLC subsidiary majority owned by some impenetrable financing pyramid. I believe in independent power selling into the wholesale grid markets, not having the incumbent vertically-integrated utility buy up every solar plant that reaches completion — but one feature that makes the latter attractive to neighbors and allays their perhaps-unfounded fears of future mismanagement is that with a utility owner, there will be deep, regulated pockets to pay for clean-up if the plant were abandoned, all those years from now. Please tell us how AgriSunPower approaches the clean-up-assurance issue.

    • Acbar and TMT
      Yes, the Green New Deal was designed to be aspirational … but wildly unrealistic? Here are 2 things to consider that can make a renewable future seem a lot more possible, sooner.

      The US has only started developing the offshore wind industry. The IEA is calling offshore wind a ‘game changer’. In the US ….
      • About 52% of the population lives in coastal counties.
      • The current US offshore wind pipeline is 25,000+ MW
      • Costs are expected to fall by 40% by 2030.
      • 86GW could be in place by 2050
      • The technical potential is more than 2,000GW, which could generate almost two times today’s US total use.
      To sum up … “if windfarms were built across all useable sites which are no further than 60km (37 miles) off the coast, and where coastal waters are no deeper than 60 metres, they could generate 36,000 terawatt hours of renewable electricity a year,” all close to population.

      Batteries are on the way…
      • rapidly falling costs of renewables and batteries are allowing optimized combinations of these resources…to systematically outcompete gas-fired generation on a cost basis while providing all the same grid services,”
      • The batteries planned for the Ravenswood Generating Station in Long Island City will replace up to 16 natural gas-fired turbines at the sprawling plant, which supplies about a fifth of New York City’s power.
      • Electric vehicles have the potential to act as virtual power plants that can help utilities soak up midday renewable energy and discharge in the evenings to reduce peak load.
      • One analysis, based on 5,000 Southern California Edison (SCE) customers’ hourly loads, commuting behavior and “potential electric vehicle (EV) ownership,” concluded that at a 10% EV penetration, the batteries could shift the utility’s entire residential peak load to nighttime hours.

      Finally, the increasing electrified, Li-ion battery-dominated world, will give way to new market opportunities for other emerging battery technologies. A new RMI’s analysis of emerging battery technologies identified six categories with significant potential for achieving commercial production by 2025.

  4. Garcia claims solar is the Most Reliable energy source available..
    He forgot to mention this only applies when the sun is shining…
    Then he throws us a bone about solar helping farmers… Any farmer worth beans makes money doing what… yeah farming.. if a farmer needs a subsidy he needs to find another career..

  5. TMT, your National Review article raises some important political concerns, e.g., about the Green New Deal’s fostering authoritarian tendencies in government. I won’t go there because I think the Green New Deal mandates are not only “aspirational” but wildly unrealistic. How to integrate “renewables” generation into our existing Grid is, however, an issue which our wholesale grid markets already address, in my opinion quite effectively. Basically they ignore green “virtue” entirely and pay at wholesale what the capacity commitment is worth as negotiated around three years in advance, and what the delivered energy is worth in the wholesale marketplace at the time of delivery.

    Mr. Zycher states, “Notwithstanding the romantic view of wind and solar power held by many, they are not cost-competitive, they are very far from clean, and they would do remarkably little to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and anthropogenic climate change, the “crisis” view of which is unsupported by the evidence. Several available analyses show that a major expansion of wind and solar power would increase the emissions of such conventional pollutants as carbon monoxide. Even apart from those problems, the renewable-electricity component of the GND [green new deal] is unworkable as a matter of straightforward electrical engineering, unless one believes that the American electorate will accept constant and widespread blackouts.” I believe this statement is quite misleading if not simply wrong.

    There is no subsidy within the wholesale markets for renewables power; the only significant subsidies out there that I know of are these: tax deductions or rebates (State and federal) to the owner for initial construction of some wind or solar assets; mandated or voluntary “renewables portfolio standards” (RPS) in a few states; State-run markets for the sale of “renewable energy certificates” (RECs) whereby those who want to signal their virtue can buy up the one-time right to consume kilowatthours of energy from a renewable resource generator; State-run carbon emissions transfer payment schemes like RGGI, where carbon emitters pay carbon non-emitters an auction price for emissions rights; and mandatory “net metering” in some States, which allows the homeowner with a roof-top solar set-up to simply run his retail meter backwards when he generates more than he consumes, thus avoiding payment for his non-energy grid costs (wires, standby generation, billing) as well, which costs are shifted to other customers. In addition there are federal inducements to buy renewables energy through federal procurement regulations applicable to military bases and the like. Collectively, these may shift the initial decision what generation to build a little towards renewables; but everything I’ve read says these subsidies are not why the construction of new solar and wind generation has taken off so dramatically in the recent past in the Mid-Atlantic region. Rather, it’s fundamentally because solar and wind power these days are very, and increasingly, cost-competitive sellers into the wholesale marketplace. Not only is this true for independent generation owners who own only a single plant, but also for utilities who seek to own a fleet of multiple kinds of generation which can operate overall at highest profit. In other words, the cost of complementing solar power at night or in adverse weather, or wind power during calm conditions, is built in to the market’s overall payment to these owners, who accordingly chose to build a renewables power plant rather than something else because the renewables plant yields a higher profit.

    Whether a major expansion of renewables power would lead to an overall increase in air pollutants is entirely dependent upon what level of renewables you are talking about. Market forces will make renewables cost-effective and emissions-effective to a level somewhere between 30% to 50% of total generation — or higher if we can solve the problems of massive battery installations, the kind required to time-shift renewables output cost-effectively. Beyond that, mandating more renewables energy than the markets can support efficiently means inefficient cycling of non-renewables generation, and that is where the higher levels of pollutants, particularly carbon monoxide (CO), are assumed to come from. Inefficient cycling means more startups, more running at idle to be ready, to absorb the fluctuations in grid demand that will always be there. Most fossil fueled generation runs inefficiently except within a narrow range of maximum output; and nuclear thermal output, of course, is wasted if not used 24/7 (a nuclear plant requires days or weeks to cycle off and on again). There are politicians out there willing to ignore these physical constraints and drive us to “100% renewables” or some such glib “green new deal” goal — but that’s not what your Mr. Zycher seems to be talking about, or at best he has deliberately confused these goals.

    Finally, the idea that renewables will bring on “constant and widespread blackouts” is, shall we say, B.S. No system operator would allow its portion of the electrical grid to be put in such unreliability extremis without raising holy hell for years in advance. The Grid’s reliability at all levels is overseen by the independent reliability organizations of the NERC and its regional subcouncils; these set reliability standards (e.g., an outage of a certain kind shall not affect an end use customer more often than once in 10 years) and then establish the equipment construction and maintenance standards and levels required to achieve them, all under supervision of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and the system operators must operate and plan and test their systems within those constraints. If a State were to demand a higher degree of renewables generation than the Grid could support reliably, this contest of wills would go to the NERC, then to FERC, then to Congress to resolve, in an area of interstate commerce where federal Constitutional and statutory authority to preempt is already clear.

    Of course, Congress could repeal all these existing layers of market forces and reliability protection and proceed to implement something as far fetched as the entire Green New Deal without a thought for the economic or political consequences. I’m not holding my breath.

    • Acbar – the problem is that the GND is not being discussed as aspirational and wildly optimistic.

      If “Market forces will make renewables cost-effective and emissions-effective to a level somewhere between 30% to 50% of total generation” is true, why is people like Northam calling for an end to fossil fuel-generated energy by 2050? Northam presumably took science courses to get an M.D. I further assume he has some basic knowledge of economics from his career as a doctor and elected official. How about Senator Schumer’s call to spend $489 billion to replace internal combustion vehicles with electric vehicles?

      We are not debating options to make significant reductions in the amount of fossil fuel-generated energy and transportation. We are talking about going 100% renewable.

      If it’s OK to fire up the left on energy, isn’t equally OK to fire up the right?

      • The GND theme is catchy and feeds the Dem base. Beyond that I think it’s a dead end in the same way that “Medicare for all” is — nobody has figured out even remotely how to pay for it and it’s a huge and divisive distraction from more practical and realistic goals. I don’t like Northam’s statement any more than Schumer’s — but they both look like markers to me, goals to be negotiated towards, over much time and many compromises. As very long range strategy I think we’d be better off phasing out reliance on fossil fuels even if climate change were not a factor. And probably 80%+ of POVs in this country, more than half of commercial vehicles, turn over in 15 years or so — electrics already make sense, why not go after the efficiencies of scale as well and encourage them? Not that it will take encouragement like Schumer envisions; that’s overkill.
        Ending fossil fueled electric generation? — ain’t gonna happen until we come up with cheaper mass battery technology; then it might be realistic. But that would also help make electric vehicles more advantageous. Batteries; batteries! If there’s a battery breakthrough by 2050, Northam will have his wish without lifting a finger.

        In short: I’m being kind to call the GND “aspirational” — there’s no way even a huge Blue Wave in Congress will take us that far. And I tend to doubt that any such Blue Wave will elect a president that really wants it.

        • Acbar – I agree that we should work to finding more low-cost and reliable sources of non-fossil fuel energy. Even though we are talking about millions and millions of years of dead dinosaurs, there still is a limited supply.

          I further agree that the key to use of less fossil fuel-based energy is batteries. But we cannot even make and market cell phone and tablet batteries that hold large charges. Or maybe the battery industry is being gamed as much as the energy/alternative energy industries.

          I get aspirational but there is a fine line between trying to inspire and stretch people and flat-out lying and fraud. And virtually everyone in Washington and other public policy Meccas are rent-seekers. While Senator Hawley’s bill to move much of the federal government outside D.C. is totally impractical, it would be a lot harder to manipulate public policy making processes and obtain access to other people’s money with a decentralized bureaucracy.

  6. “We are not debating options to make significant reductions in the amount of fossil fuel-generated energy and transportation” …
    but we ARE … talking about how to de-carbonize and it is only political in the eyes of pols, mostly the ones who get money from the ‘fossils’.

    I have just listened to a report on the Energy Transition from DNGVL. Their numbers are backed up by Wood Mac. Does anyone out there who is denigrating the 100% as a renewable goal think these 2 companies have bad numbers?

    First of all, in the developing world there will be a further decoupling of GDP and energy demand. Demand with be decreased substantially by efficiency in 3 main areas, and electricity will make up a much larger portion of total energy use, rising to 44%.

    Second, by 2050 solar and wind will make up 72% of all generation. The prediction is 22% from offshore wind, 26% from onshore wind and 24% from PV solar. This is considerably higher than the 30-50% Acbar says is doable without batteries, and doesn’t include hydro etc.

    “If there is a battery break though by 2050” …
    RMI says new battery tech is on the way … will be coming online by 2025, plenty of time to make a dent in the intermittency issue by 2050. They just put out a report.

    • Jane, I share your conviction that solar/wind/batteries are the long-term future of electricity production. The big question is that we don’t know when batteries will become cost-effective — not only for day-to-day needs but to preserve reliability under the kinds of rare extreme weather events I have discussed previously. I am optimistic that those batteries are coming. But I’m not willing to bet the reliability of the electric grid on the hope that the next generation of super-batteries will arrive by 2025, or any other date. To me, the situation calls for maintaining maximum flexibility so we can exploit new technologies if and when they occur — but to protect ourselves if those advances do not occur.

  7. BUT solar plus storage is already competing in certain regions of the country with combined cycle gas plants. An IEEFA report says $39$48/MWh with 6 hour storage vs. $60-1216/MWh. There are a bunch of new installation with solar and storage and where storage is the primary plus.

    In RMI’s “Breakthrough Batteries” report … “lithium ion battery suppliers are poised to reach at least 1,330GW of combined annual manufacturing capacity by 2023.” That should tell you something about how far away market development is … and the analysis also evaluates 5 or 6 ‘almost ready’ batteries.

    Plus “dramatically lower storage costs will disrupt conventional assumptions about optimal grid architecture and open a rapidly wider array of opportunities for delivering energy services.” RMI and others say the utilities will have to be forward looking because “the synergies now emerging from the smart combination of renewable supply, storage and demand flexibility will require new methods of planning and analysis as well as revamping traditional utility business models.”

    I have talked before about the distributed energy opportunities that, to this old IBMer who worked with mainframes that took up whole rooms, I envision, the single centralized generation/ distribution becoming more like the computer tech we have now … structures that include on-site, microgrids and software already developed and developing to exchange and maintain energy supplies.

    There is nothing wrong with caution, but it should not hold us back from envisioning and preparing for a very different future.

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