More Restrictions Proposed for Culpeper Solar Farms

Off limits to utility-scale solar? Civil War battlefield locations in Virginia.

by James A. Bacon

Culpeper County prohibits construction of solar farms on Civil War battlefields. Now a proposal under consideration by the Board of Supervisors would discourage large solar projects adjacent to battlefield land held in historic easement, reports the Culpeper Star-Exponent. And that restriction is just one of many changes to the county’s Utility Scale Solar Facility Development Policy under review by the board.

Last year the board approved the 1,000-acre Greenwood Solar project over local opposition. Since then resistance to the land-consuming facilities has gotten more organized. One group, Citizens for Responsible Solar,  has actively pursued a policy of delay and encumber to restrict development of large-scale solar farms. Last month Cricket Solar pulled a proposal for a 1,600-acre solar farm in the county. Meanwhile, local opposition has stalled progress on utility-scale projects in other counties.

On the state level, it is the policy of the Northam administration, the General Assembly, the environmental community, and Dominion Energy to boost the contribution of solar power to Virginia’s energy mix. People may disagree about how far and how fast to go, but just about everyone agrees on the desirability of having more solar than we have now. But opposition at the local level has emerged as a significant barrier to large-scale deployment of solar.

The changes under review by the Culpeper board show the wide range of restrictions that are possible. Only a few of the items appear gratuitous. Most purport to address real concerns. But if adopted en mass, they could severely restrict utility-scale solar in Virginia. Staff-suggested changes include:

  • Limit total solar project development in Culpeper to 2,400 acres. (The board declined to enact this change earlier this year when it came up for a vote.)
  • Limit individual solar panel installations to 300 acres.
  • Prohibit the owner of a conditional use permit from selling it to a third party without board approval. (The business model of many developers is to develop the project then sell it to a third party.)
  • Revoke conditional use permits if inactive for more than 12 months.
  • Encourage recycling of solar panels upon decommissioning.
  • Limit solar plant construction activity from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (compared to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. now).
  • Require historic properties and resources to be screened.
  • Prohibit the storage of solar power batteries on site.
  • Require fencing to be placed behind perimeter landscaping.
  • Require a lighting plan and limit maximum height of panels to 12 feet.
  • Require an erosion-and-sediment control plan and require a stormwater management permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality.
  • Require a vegetative management plan.
  • Require the hiring of local contractors and the holding of at least two job fairs.

Other proposed regulations, says the Star-Exponent, address road repair, solar panel specifications, and making available information about the physical and chemical properties of solar panels.

Conservation easements in Virginia.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is not feasible to plop down a solar farm just anywhere. Solar facilities must be located near electric transmission lines, the land must be inexpensive, and parcels must be available for sale. The more locations that are excluded by conservation easements, national forests, historic and cultural heritage sites, Civil War battlefields and the like, the more difficult it becomes to find economically justifiable locations. Adding a panoply of local land-use regulations piles on additional costs, effectively ruling out even more locations.

The demand for renewable energy is strongest in Northern Virginia, location of the world’s largest cluster of data centers, most of which are owned by corporations pledged to move to a 100% renewable electricity supply. Ironically, anti-solar farm sentiment and development restrictions are greatest in the rural outskirts of Northern Virginia — in places like Culpeper County — where locals have battling suburban sprawl and fighting to preserve their way of life for decades.

Ordinary Joes like me want to see more solar because it’s clean and, when suitable sites can be found, it’s economical. But for Virginia environmentalists, the crusade for solar is bound up with the angst over global warming. Solar is not just desirable, it is a moral necessity. Perhaps I’ve overlooked something, but it seems like environmentalists are largely AWOL from the land-use debate playing out in Virginia’s rural counties. The legislative focus of the environmental lobby has been on circumventing Dominion Energy’s retail monopoly to enable more community solar. That may be a worthy goal, but it amounts to squabbling over dimes and ignoring the dollars.

If Virginia wants more solar power, it needs to reconcile the conflict between large-scale solar farms and the sensitivities of impacted populations. I don’t see any of our elected officials leading that effort.

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10 responses to “More Restrictions Proposed for Culpeper Solar Farms

  1. Some reasonable restrictions are not necessarily bad. Presumably even with the restrictions there is plenty of ground useable for solar. Obviously some land owners would like to profit from renting their land for solar farms, so they may resent restrictions if it applies to their property. The way it usually works is “money talks” so the restrictions are usually weak to allow profit over all other concerns.

    Recently had a picnic invite to a Culpeper property owner’s place with great Civil War history. That does not help my response except maybe I wish I had asked that solar development question when we were there.

  2. I ajgree, some reasonable restrictions are not necessarily bad. But, there is no more benign form of electric generation than solar. It makes no noise, it harms no creatures, it blocks no horizons, it causes no daily influx of workers, it produces no environmental waste, it costs little to remove, it leaves no contamination behind. I’m not saying it is pretty to look at a field of solar collectors while they are there. I am saying that solar power generation must be judged against the alternative, the loss of open space: farmers under financial stress denied this source of revenue and going out of business; more housing development; more urban sprawl. And, more fossil fueled generation.

    Also, I am saying that there’s a very large NIMBY component here. Power generation has to take place somewhere. And solar power is as good a form of zero-carbon power generation as there is. At some point the State has to step in and override unreasonable local objections, as with transmission lines. We need these facilities too much to forbid them all.

    So what are reasonable restrictions? Screening and decommissioning provisions, yes. No proximity to other public spaces, no. If people feel that strongly about seeing solar collectors from an adjacent battlefield park, then come up with the tax money to rent or buy the land as public property from the farmer who owns it.

  3. I also think restrictions for incompatible land uses are appropriate for a wide variety of uses – just keep things real , consistent and non-discriminatory.

    There is a reason why – by the way – that counties like Culpeper cannot unilaterally deny power lines, pipelines, cell towers, state roads, and the spreading of sewage sludge on farm fields – and yes farm fields that are adjacent to battlefields!

    And a further irony is that companies like Dominion can and do use eminent domain to build a power line or pipeline. Imagine if solar had that ability……

    • You raise an interesting legal question. If an independent solar generating company incorporates as a public service corporation in Virginia, would it have power of condemnation? I suspect the answer is yes, but subject, as for all condemnations, to a showing of public necessity — i.e., public need and no reasonable alternative. It would be hard for an independent generator to make that case to a condemnation court.

      • If an independent solar generator organized as a public service company, it would only acquire eminent domain rights upon receipt of all necessary certificates of public convenience and necessity from the Commission.

  4. Culpeper County should have a choice – accept solar and other economically positive efforts or stop taking transfer payments from elsewhere in the state. If they want to live in bucolic isolation they can be isolated from everybody else’s money too.

  5. I noticed some new road construction going on the way down there. That tells me the state commits to NoVA paying for roads, but not getting all the roads. But I am of course also vulnerable to the NoVA-is-taxed-too-hard sentiment.

    • Part of the ongoing corruption in Virginia is the near total lack of transparency regarding the sources and uses of state taxes – especially by geography. My suspicion is that when the Imperial Clown Show keeps the citizens in the dark about something there is usually a nefarious reason.

  6. I’m not sure I agree with the premise “If Virginia wants more solar power, it needs to reconcile the conflict between large-scale solar farms and the sensitivities of impacted populations.”

    The push for utility-scale solar is led in a large part by Dominion. It does not make sense for us to allow Dominion to put solar projects in the ratebase. It increases the cost too much.

    Many of the “soft costs” such as land acquisition, project design, staging and mobilization, etc. are lower on a per kW basis for large installations. But the costs of transmission, substations (if needed), and the opportunity cost of losing farmland, aesthetics, etc. are not included in the project costs.

    Residential solar, community solar, commercial and industrial solar installations can be accomplished without a ratepayer subsidy and can be integrated into the distributions system without costly transmission.

    This improves the reliability and resiliency of the grid, but with our current regulatory scheme, hurts utility profits.

    We don’t have to accept that the only way to have more solar is to build more huge solar farms. In reality, we are likely to have some of both. But at the moment, the lower-cost development of solar at brown-field locations is being obstructed by the utilities.

    We would have more solar, faster, without the cost-premium that Dominion-owned solar requires, if we modified our rules. Our utilities could provide much of the financing and make money from the interest and the ITC; but putting it in the ratebase increases the cost too much. Many environmental organizations have supported Dominion’s program, believing that more expensive solar is better than no solar at all, but that is not the optimal solution.

    • “The push for utility-scale solar is led in a large part by Dominion.”.That used to be true; but I’m pleased to see an increasing number of utility-scale solar projects being built in Virginia by independents. I’m thinking of projects I’ve seen recently from the road beside US 17 in Essex, and VA 14 in Gloucester, and VA 3 in Middlesex, all of which were built and came on line just in the last couple of years, none of them owned by Dominion. As independent generators they sell (in competition with Dominion Generation) into the PJM wholesale capacity and energy markets.

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