Solar Power and the Gentrification of the Countryside

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.

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19 responses to “Solar Power and the Gentrification of the Countryside

  1. Our current energy policy of allowing utilities to put solar in the ratebase increases the likelihood of utility-scale solar installations.

    Solar, as with other distributed energy resources (DERs), have the greatest value at the distribution level. DERs add to the resilience and reliability of the grid. They can also avoid or postpone investments in grid resources that all ratepayers must pay for.

    If we did an objective comprehensive evaluation of the costs and benefits of adding solar at the distribution level versus the transmission level, we might find fewer proposals for large-scale solar in our farmlands.

    • Tom – what is a realistic payback for a homeowner to have solar panels cover much of his/her roof? Doesn’t it also depend on which way the roof faces? I would think that south or west facing roofs have a much faster payback period than north or east facing roofs. But I could be wrong.

      • Based on my limited knowledge, it seems that the payback for individual homeowners in today’s economy is not much, but that may be because the alternatives (conventional energy production) are so heavily socialized through scale and subsidies that the true costs are either shared by all or hidden in the form of taxes (or tax breaks, or military spending, or eminent domain, etc.). If the playing field were truly level, perhaps distributed generation would be more competitive, especially in the rural areas where the costs of grid sprawl exceed the public benefits, or for large-scale commercial consumers that create great strain on the grid but can justify in-house production.

      • If I recall, the Clean Power Plan did not mandate/encourage roof top solar because it has much higher total true cost to the utility than utility-scale solar. However, for the homeowner, it can still be a very good deal because net-metering and other incentives defray the costs to the utility and/or other rate payers/taxpayers etc.

        I would not discourage roof-top solar for homewoners that want to do it, but I would try to not make it a sweetheart deal either.

        • I wouldn’t be interested in investing in solar absent a payback period of no more than three years give or take. And I suspect homeowners insurance premiums will be higher for houses with solar as the market develops.

          • Often you will be offered annual payment plan similar to your current cost. I probably should have listened to the speech of the guys who came to my front door the other day to quote it.

      • The payback for solar depends on a lot of factors. South or west facing exposures are important. I have heard some solar installers talk about an 8 year payback for some residential installations. But payback is a notion we seem to apply only to energy efficiency and solar. Customers save money from Day 1. After the system is paid off it runs 25+ years for free.

        I see much of the distributed solar coming from commercial and industrial applications. Batteries can be used to reduce peak demand for these users, greatly reducing monthly bills since demand charges are about half of the bill. Community solar is also a cheaper, easier way of serving residential users compared to putting panels on rooftops of houses.

    • If Dominion is full speed ahead on solar, that means they see as profitable to them. Meanwhile, watch your pocketbook for sure.

      • It gives them about twice the project cost in profits like any other project put in the rate base. We can develop the same project with third parties at a lower cost. That is why some other states only allow solar to be sold as a PPA to the utility instead of being put in the rate base.

        Of course, if we take this way of making money away from the utilities, we need to give them another way to earn it. I suggest they provide new services that have value. They should be paid for the value they provide, not how much they spend.

  2. I suspect we’ll need both, although the larger projects could and will often be owned by merchant generators. I honestly don’t think the arrays are unattractive. Driving by them reminds me of the endless rows of crops you often pass. They certainly do not impede the view in the same way major power lines do, but of course where the solar panels are a major power line must be built to connect. We’ve long reached and passed the point of marginal utility on preserving battlefields (oh, the heresy!)

    • I agree with you. But for those near northern Virginia who value their viewsheds, I submit the proper way to go about viewshed preservation is to invite Disney back to buy up all the land around Manassas for a proper theme park. Better yet, give the State Tourist Bureau power of condemntation to remove all the people and their modern houses from the countryside and rebuild every structure known to have existed before, say, 1915, exactly as it was, with viewing areas properly supported by underground parking and “restored” villages of museums and brew-pubs. By removing so much of the resident population and all other commercial activity, the demand for electricity would fall to the point that no generation whatever, including solar, would be necessary. And think of the movies that could be made there!

      Alternatively, let’s embrace solar generation as the necessary price of population growth and a decent economy for Virginia, and a heck of a lot more palatable than smokestacks and cooling towers.

    • You are right Steve. We will end up with both. I am only pushing the other side so we end up with more of a balance. The utility-scale units are being pushed by Dominion and in the energy bill because it makes them more money. We need a modern regulatory scheme so the best energy system gets developed, not the one that is most profitable for the utilities. We don’t have to pick winners and losers.

  3. The impact of rural gentrification needs more study than it gets. The ripple effects on food, fiber, and energy prices, which ultimately hit working class people everywhere, is a complicated process. And it’s not really saving the environment. Rather, it’s pushing environmental problems into other countries.

  4. Virginia has lots of land available for solar and large scale solar could contribute more energy than VA uses. But that isn’t the only or even the best way to produce energy with solar. Right now it just sounds cheaper than on-site or community based PV because comparative costs do not include the distribution costs. Rooftop solar has positives that Virginia can’t take advantage of until we change the regulatory framework and/or enable commercial PACE loans throughout the state.

    NREL said Virginia’s rooftops can support 25% of total generation, and that was without including the idea of community installations where a shaded roof owner can purchase a few panels down the road. Microgrids were also not considered in that old NREL resource study, and they are an important part of increased local or distributed generation. In just four years, California’s microgrid installations increased 220 percent; distributed advanced energy storage 548 percent; and behind-the-meter solar 180 percent. These technologies, combined with fast-growing community energy aggregations. ”

    Adding storage to local solar is also an important input. “In a new report, Solar+Storage Synergies for Managing Commercial-Customer Demand Charges, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that solar and storage technologies complement each other in reducing demand when deployed together … The researchers found that billing demand reductions from solar+storage were often greater than the sum of the reductions from each technology alone, with a median demand charge reduction of 8 percent for solar-only systems, 23 percent for storage-only, and 42 percent for combined solar+storage.”

    Taking over Virginia’s countryside is not necessary and actually slows change to a distributed clean energy future.

  5. I do not think solar panels are unattractive and certainly no more so than a powerline or railroad or highway or a WalMart or WaWa all of which exist in historic and scenic vistas…

    There are millions of acres of already-cleared fields that are no longer used for farming… there are many, many closed down manufacturing plants that could become sites for solar…

    What I’d like to see is for Dominion to become a for-profit provider of hybrid solar systems where they operate automatically to harvest solar when it is available and use grid power when they don’t … and the homeowner doesn’t have to do much more than they do now with the electric meter. The system would self-report – to Dominion if it had a failure or was not operating properly. The homeowner would have to pay for the installation not ratepayers. Dominion could use any surplus power that solar generated – in exchange for the “availability” of grid power.. each side gets something.

    One thing I’m curious about and TomH probably knows the answer. If we end up with a lot of solar installed – and there is a power outage… what happens to the solar if it is still generating? It won’t be enough to take over from a loss of grid power .. probably… and you donj’t want it energizing lines so they probably have to disconnect the solar also – even though it is still generating…

    • My suggestion for a more resilient and reliable grid is to build it as a network of nested microgrids. If the larger grid goes down, a smaller microgrid with local generation can continue to operate at a reduced level.

      Currently, solar units must have an automatic kill switch that sends the output to ground when the grid connection is lost, so energy does not feed back into the system and create live wires that could be a danger to a repair crew and others.

  6. I am sympathetic to not worrying about panels on the roof and their connection … Here is a new offer in Virginia.
    “Power Home Solar is excited to be promoting one of the first dedicated solar repayment systems for middle class families allowing them to get a low solar bill and an even lower electric bill. The goal is to install solar arrays to over 32,000 homes by the end of next year. By using training programs, various federal and state incentives, money from companies and private investors, they aim to keep the costs to those who provide and install the panels as low as possible. Home Energy Guide has teamed up with Power Home Solar to install the panels in Virginia.”

    Commercial solar with storage is a real opportunity for the energy system that we are far behind on. Only centralized generation is the old way and will not serve us going forward.

  7. One other thing to point out. Most folks don’t pay much attention to what kinds of infrastructure is necessary to support the National Parks Visitor Centers and Campgrounds. People expect lights, bathrooms, etc but a lot
    of National Parks are not near electric or water and sewer.

    So NPS has to figure out how to provide those things.

    so here you go – this is Mesa Verde:

    The Visitor Center wears those solar with pride – they don’t hide them

    “Mesa Verde National Park Visitor and Research Center Receives LEED Platinum Rating”

    If you think Mesa Verde is an “outlier” ..you’d be very wrong.. Many, many of the NPS Parks and Monuments use solar panels.. – sometimes because they are far from the grid and other times – they don’t want overhead powerlines and burying underground is prohibitively expensive. Solar has a much less visual impact than overhead power lines…

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