Solar Farms and Rural Blight

Non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia

Governor Ralph Northam is committed to solar energy in Virginia. So is the General Assembly. So are Virginia environmentalists, investor-owned utilities and entrepreneurial solar developers. Now all we have to do is convince the people of rural Virginia that installing massive arrays of solar panels in their neighborhoods poses no threat to their quality of life.

I’ve documented numerous instances of resistance to solar projects around the state on this blog. Here are a couple more.

Campbell County. The Campbell County Board of Supervisors is moving forward with an ordinance to regulate solar farms, three of which have been proposed for the Central Virginia county, reports the News & Advance. Much of the discussion at a hearing yesterday focused on the noticeable hum emitted by solar inverters, which convert the electricity from solar panels into a form that can enter the electric grid. One supervisor argued for a 200- to 300-foot setback for the devices, which can generate noise at a level comparable to an air conditioner or dishwasher. Other supervisors rejected the idea, but the ordinance does require solar projects to conduct traffic studies and decommissioning studies.

More non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia.(Image credit: Hamell.net.)

Culpeper County. Meanwhile, a standing-room-only crowd turned out for a public hearing yesterday on a proposed 1,900-acre solar farm in Culpeper County. Concerns included impacts to view sheds in the area, screening, construction noise, setbacks and property values, reports the Free Lance-Star.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find noise concerns laughable. If inverters required 200-foot setbacks to mitigate an air conditioner-level hum, so would every new house constructed in Campbell County! Is construction work on solar panels louder and more objectionable than construction work on convenience stores, housing subdivisions and manufacturing plants? As for traffic impact, c’mon, a solar farm might generate two or three trips on a typical day. Solar farms are about as low-impact an activity as it’s possible to get. Even cemeteries see more action! 

Even more non-solar visual blight.

People may have a point about the aesthetic impact of solar farms upon bucolic rural views. But, dude, why just pick on solar farms? I’ve seen plenty of run-down shacks, gas stations, and industrial structures barns in rural Virginia that no one gets exercised about. Why not clean them up, too?

Solar’s time has arrived. Virginia was prudent to not mandate solar power when the technology was more primitive and the electric output far more expensive than it is today. But costs have plummeted, and a big chunk of solar in the electric-generating mix makes economic sense. Plus, solar is clean. Even if you don’t lay awake at night worrying about global warming — which I certainly don’t — that’s a major bonus. Get with the program, people! Solar farms bring tax and royalty revenue into your community. Find something else to worry about!

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7 responses to “Solar Farms and Rural Blight

  1. Either the environmentalists are engaged in fraud or Dominion is trying to kill consumer choice for solar power. I received my last Dominion bill with an insert that invited me to sign up for solar generated electricity. I could either request that all my energy be “matched” with solar or I could select a fixed dollar amount. The former requires me to pay a 12% premium over standard residential rates. Don’t know about how the fixed dollar plan works re price differentials.

    How can solar power be cheaper than conventional electricity and be priced 12% higher? Who is the crook here?

    • That’s a good question. Both questions. Solar electricity is cheaper except when it’s not there. Running the grid with solar + cycling n.g. units costs a little more than running it with 24/7 baseload units which cannot cycle; but that differential is getting smaller as the latest low-cost, high-efficiency n.g. units can be run 24/7 or cycled. So, at the wholesale level, you ought to be able to contract for all-solar electricity at essentially the same price as all other grid power these days — with only enough markup to cover the admin costs of keeping track of it all.

      Now retail is another matter. Dominion has the exclusive right to sell to most of NoVa at retail. They got the SCC to agree to a retail tariff provision to allow a hefty markup for all-renewables power several years ago, when everyone was gaga about promoting renewables and some committed green customers were even ready to pay Dominion more for it — or (DOM: gag!) build their own rooftop solar regardless of the cost. In addition, several northeastern States (Virginia was not one of them initially) started their own exchanges for buying and selling “renewable energy credits” (RECs – where 1 REC certifies that somewhere, sometime, someone on the grid generated 1 kWh by renewable resources and sold that energy into the grid, thereby creating 1 REC). When you buy “all renewables” power from Dominion, Dominion has bought (or created itself) and consumed that many RECs, the accounting for which can be audited. The significance of this today is: (1) Dominion’s markup on solar is based on costs that are several years old but the cost of solar panels (at least before Trump) has come down steeply in those years; plus, (2) the REC market price reflects the corporate push by the likes of Amazon to up their percentage of renewables for appearances sake, and so Dominion must pay the same price (or opportunity cost) to sell RECs to a residential retail customer instead. The sum of these two factors means you pay more for a dedicated supply of renewables power off the grid than it costs differentially to generate.

      Dominion makes money selling all its solar power into the grid at a wholesale price, and Dominion makes money selling the RECs it creates in the wholesale REC exchanges. If Dominion sells solar at retail, it foregoes selling that many of its own RECs and, if necessary, it has to buy additional RECs. As for the solar power itself: a supply of commingled power is delivered by the grid operator to Dominion’s distribution system at a wholesale cost that (as discussed above) includes renewables power at essentially no additional cost. In other words, that 12% markup in Dominion’s retail tariff is totally unjustified to the extent it recovers more than the cost (a lot less!) of those RECs. What Dominion ought to do is arrange for a retail pass-through of the cost of the RECs, period.

  2. Rural blight is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Weathered old buildings aren’t the same as a trailer park. Those buildings are part of the rural landscape that help make it different from suburbia. And their landowners still pay tax on the land. One building doesn’t have the same visual impact as 1900 acres of panels. If rural tourism is a part of a county’s economic structure, setbacks aren’t a frivolous request.

    These solar farms don’t always bring money to a county. I couldn’t locate any statistics on county real estate taxes when solar project land is put in conservation. And Jim, any change in what you wrote in April last year? “Under state law, solar energy projects are assessed for property tax purposes as “certified pollution control equipment.” That qualifies solar farms for an 80% reduction in property taxes. That exemption improves the economics of solar projects but it reduces the tax benefits to local governments.”

    Without getting into the Composite Index tangle, doesn’t Code of VA § 58.1-3660 also apply to county equipment and machine tax when it says “real or personal property tax?”

  3. There’s an issue of proportionality here. Powerlines, substations, cell towers, and other infrastructure dot the rural countryside already – not to mention the many not-so-charming , decrepit buildings, shacks and other less than wonderful scenes.

    Further, the code of Virginia REQUIRES that counties accept sewage sludge per validated proposals… the opposition to solar is not based on any rational criteria if there is screening – the same way screening is required for other things – including things like quarries and landfills, etc.

    In response to TMT’s question about who is the “crook”. If we had unfettered 3rd party solar in Virginia – you likely WOULD see lower prices – and it’s Dominions sworn duty to not let that happen and as long as they do, you’re not going to see cheaper solar sold to you by Dominion.

  4. Jim, completely agree with you that the traffic burden from solar generation is below trivial. Re the inverter noise, that can be a nuisance but it’s easily solved by surrounding the inverter with berm walls and/or sound-barrier fencing.

    As for your picture labeled “More non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia,” I think the still-in-business-and-highly-profitable source of “Byrd Mill” grain/flour products, the Ashland Roller Mills, located on the South Anna R. just west of the Rt. 1 bridge, would resent being called “visual blight.”

  5. This otherwise useful and informative blog is marred by the pictures and and cutlines. The caption of the bottom picture of rusting mobile homes is especially offensive. Jim, we both went to fancy and expensive DC area prep schools. Didn’t the Episcopalians teach you not to mock people who do not have what you do? Sometimes mobile homes are the best possible housing for some folks in rural areas. I know they are incredibly bad investments but they might be all that some people can afford. Supposed the rust is due to lack of painting by some cheapo slumlord.

    You diminish the quality of your blog when you run stuff like this. Where’s your compassion?

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