Consider two mega-trends: (1) the push to renewable solar power and, (2) the changing economics of rural land that places an increasing value on pristine “viewsheds.” Both are powerful forces, and the two are coming into conflict here in Virginia. How the story ends, nobody yet knows. Hopefully, the two can be reconciled.
The American Battlefield Trust has published a study, “A War-Time Viewshed Study of Culpeper County,” that examines how far Confederate and Union troops see from the half-dozen signal stations around Culpeper County during the Civil War. The study asks, according to today’s Free Lance-Star, “what is the modern-day value of preserving such elevated vistas near the same areas proposed for two large solar farm projects?”
Virginia has committed itself to an energy future that eventually will rely upon solar energy for some 25% of its electric generating capacity. While a portion of that capacity will be installed on rooftops and other urban/sububurban locations, most of it will take the form of vast solar farms consuming thousands of acres in the countryside.
Once upon a time, when the countryside was inhabited mainly by farmers, that might not have caused consternation. Farmers held a strictly utilitarian attitude toward their land, and as long as a solar facility did not interfere with their farming operations, they wouldn’t have cared. But Virginia’s countryside has fundamentally changed. Farmers no longer predominate. Much of the countryside is now classified as “exurbs” — scattered, extremely low density development, primarily residential. In many places, farming is now seen as an intrusive activity, and homeowners get angry at slow-moving farm tractors clogging commuter traffic on country roads. Homeowners place a tremendous premium on the views from their back porches, the quality of that view affects the price of their property, and they get up in arms over anything that affects that view.
Another facet of this gentrification of the countryside is the proliferation of vineyards, breweries, and restaurants whose owners selected their locations for the beautiful views their patrons would enjoy while dining on the back patio. Increasingly, viewsheds have commercial economic value. Yet another aspect is the issued raised by the American Battlefield Trust of historic viewsheds. In a region with a rich history, such as Virginia’s northern Piedmont, there is strong sentiment for preserving historic viewsheds, both for practical economic reasons, such as preserving the local tourism trade, and for intrinsic reasons, such as protecting hallowed ground.
It’s no surprise, then, that Virginia has witnessed unprecedented levels of activism in opposition to infrastructure projects of any kind, be they natural gas pipelines, electric transmission lines, and now solar farms. The debate gets interesting because foes of pipelines and electric transmission lines have latched onto environmentalist arguments in support of their opposition. The pipelines, in particular, have been portrayed as antithetical to environmental goals of reducing CO2 emissions and combating global warming.
Environmentalists propose to reduce CO2 emissions by ramping up solar production — a land-intensive endeavor. While not as visually intrusive as high-voltage electric transmission towers, solar farms are comparable in visual impact to, say, a buried natural gas pipeline where trees have been cut down along the route.
“View sheds continually rank within the state as very significant to visitors,” said Glenn Stach, author of the American Battlefield Trust study. “Battlefield preservation and the experience of a battlefield today are best protected by the protection of agricultural lands.” Reports the Free Lance-Star:
“A contemporary viewshed policy says five miles is what you should manage, the mitigation of resources within that viewshed is most important,” he said.
The two proposed solar projects both are within that five-mile area. The panels will stretch up to maximum 15-feet during peak times, according to the extensive application submitted earlier this year by Texas-based Greenwood Solar seeking to build a utility scale project on 1,000 acres south of Stevensburg.
A separate project by Virginia Solar seeks to build on 172 acres between Stevensburg and Brandy Station with both following the existing Dominion Power transmission line.
A spokesman for one of the solar companies said the project would be out of view from the county’s “core battlefields, and the solar panels would have low, 12-foot profile.
And, thus, a new battle is joined.