by James A. Bacon
Solar energy is the cheapest source of electricity now available, solar advocates tell us, and that’s a big reason we should build more of it in Virginia. At the same time, says the solar lobby, the industry needs local-government tax breaks, in particular a state-mandated 80% exemption from local machine-and-tool taxes.
“If that tax incentive was not in place, you could not have the had the kind of development that was necessary,” David Murray, executive director of the Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Energy Industry Association, tells the Register & Bee website at GoDanRiver.com.
So, which is it? Is solar the cheapest electricity source available, or the cheapest just when poor rural local governments are compelled by the state to grant massive tax breaks?
Pittsylvania County, the county adjacent to the City of Danville, has one solar farm in operation and has granted permitting for eight others. The county expects to benefit from two revenue streams: property taxes and machine & tool taxes. Under legislation in effect since 2016, small solar projects (less than 20 megawatts capacity) are entirely exempt from the M&T tax, while larger projects are 80% exempt. Moreover, under the State Corporation Commission depreciation schedule, utility-scale solar is taxed at 90% of value in the first five years but only 10% of value by year 25. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
It may be a while before the solar industry matches the clout of Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, but it has come into its own as a lobbying and political player. The new reality hit me forcefully when the Virginia Solar for All Campaign issued a statement applauding the advance of the Virginia Clean Economy Act out of committee yesterday.
“The House of Delegates is taking bold action on energy, advancing legislation that will create a clean energy economy, put Virginia on a path to 100% clean energy, and eliminate harmful carbon emissions to turn back the tide against climate change,” said Rachel Smucker, Virginia Policy and Development Manager for the Maryland Delaware Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (MDV-SEIA).
Distributed solar generation — small-scale rooftop and community projects — is a key component of the bill, which would mandate a 100% renewable electric grid by 2050. At present, distributed solar is capped at 1% of Dominion’s peak load forecast. Lifting that cap, expanding opportunities for Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), and mandating 100% renewable energy sources would open up multibillion-dollar market opportunities for solar companies.
The collection of logos seen above, representing members of the Virginia Solar for All Campaign, does not even account for all the solar players in the state. Continue reading
NIMBYs against hemp. Farmers across Southside Virginia have turned to growing hemp (the THC-free version used in industrial applications) as a replacement crop for tobacco. But at least one Dinwiddie County neighborhood has risen in revolt. A hemp farm near the Lake Jordan neighborhood emits an offensive odor. The smell is so bad that it’s getting into peoples’ houses and permeating their clothing, reports the Progress-Index. “We’re worried that they’re going to continue planting around, which would basically mean [that] people will have to leave or just tolerate unbelievable skunk-like odors,” said Jarrod Reisweber, a director of the homeowners association. Daniel Lee, vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors held out the hope that, if solutions could be found to control the odor of hog farms, a remedy could be found for hemp as well.
Amazon offers $20 million toward affordable housing. Amazon is offering $20 million to the Arlington County Affordable Housing Investment Fund in exchange for permission to build a bigger headquarters complex than county zoning allows. The sum would amount to the greatest single infusion of money into the fund, reports the Washington Post. Amazon wants to increase the size of its proposed 22-story office towers from 1.56 million square feet to about 2.15 million square feet, reduce the number of parking spaces, and increase penthouse height. If we assume an average of $50 per square foot for office space in Arlington, Amazon’s concessions are worth about $30 million. That’s gross value. Once construction costs are excluded, Amazon would net significantly less. By that comparison, the $20 million offer seems pretty generous.
Virginia Schools turn to solar. An increasing number of public and private schools in Virginia are utilizing solar power. The number of schools with solar has nearly tripled since 2014 — from 20 to 86, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A niche industry has evolved in which entrepreneurs package solar Public Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in which schools put no cash down and start generating positive cash flow from the first year. Pete Gretz with the Middlesex County school system says that ground-mounted solar saved just under $50,000 at its elementary school site. “There’s no drawback to this,” he said. “It’s completely a win-win.” Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Virginia’s move to an energy future dominated by solar and wind power will necessarily be accompanied by battery storage. Vast arrays of batteries will be needed to store and release electricity to offset the intermittent generation of solar and wind farms. Battery storage is exceedingly expensive now, but the price is expected to decline significantly in the decade ahead. While the speed with which batteries become economical to deploy on a large scale is highly uncertain, there can be little doubt that batteries eventually will become an integral part of Virginia’s electric grid.
A recent state-commissioned report, “Commonwealth of Virginia Energy Storage Study,” suggests that the near-term potential for energy storage in Virginia (over and above the Bath and Smith Mountain Lake pumped-storage facilities) could reach 24 to 113 megawatts of capacity, while the potential grows to between 239 and 1,123 megawatts over the next decade. The study, written by the Strategen consulting firm, recommends establishing a goal of 1,000 megawatts by 2030. (That would be two-thirds as much capacity of the state-of-the-art, natural gas-powered Greensville County Power Station.)
A number of things must happen to achieve this potential. The Commonwealth of Virginia has no control over the pace of technology advance, the global supply of critical raw materials (particularly cobalt and manganese), or the evolution of wholesale electric markets. But it can do a few things. Foremost is to address safety, permitting and environmental issues before they create bottlenecks to large-scale battery deployment. Continue reading
Solar panels at Haynesville Correctional Center Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Corrections
The Virginia Department of Corrections is getting further into solar energy.
The department has recently completed the construction of a five-acre solar farm at Haynesville Correctional Center. The correctional facility is a medium- security prison in Richmond County, near the town of Warsaw, in the Northern Neck region of the state.
According to a DOC press release, the solar farm is a 852.72 kW photovoltaic system consisting of 2,508 photovoltaic modules. DOC estimates that it will produce 16% of the prison’s electrical needs, resulting in an annual savings of $120,000. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Getting 39,999 right out of 40,000 not too shabby. After 18 years the Virginia Forensic Science Board has wound up its review of 530,000 cases in which DNA evidence was available. The effort identified 13 men who were wrongfully convicted, including the highly publicized cases of Earl Washington Jr., and Thomas Haynesworth, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
One wrongful conviction is too many, those who were deprived of their liberty should be recompensed, and mechanisms need to be put into place to ensure that such tragedies are not re-enacted. But 13 instances of wrongful convictions is a far cry from predictions that the wrongful conviction rate in sex cases could be as high as 15%. Indeed, compared to the perception of prevalent injustice, the numbers are reassuring: The review of DNA evidence ended up reversing only one in 40,000 convictions. If your standard is perfection, then Virginia’s legal system is a failure. Clearly it did fail in at least 13 instances, and it could be argued that there were miscarriages of justice that the DNA review did not uncover. But by any other standard, the fact that 39,999 cases out of 40,000 withstood the review is very encouraging. I wonder how many the court systems of other states and countries would have fared as well.
Does this contract actually do anything? Last week Governor Ralph Northam announced an agreement for state government to purchase from Dominion Energy 420 megawatts from multiple solar farms and the state’s first onshore wind farm. The contract ensures that 30% of the electricity consumed by state agencies and institutions in Virginia comes from renewable sources. “This is an historic announcement for renewable energy growth in Virginia,” pronounced Secretary of Commerce and trade Brian Ball. First question: What difference does it make? If Dominion had committed to building these projects anyway, Virginia electricity customers would have been consuming clean energy regardless. The fact that the state is paying directly for these projects, rather than as a general ratepayer, does not increase the supply of green power by one electron. Another question: What will the state pay for the bragging rights? Will it pay more or less than general ratepayers? The governor’s press release doesn’t say… which is not a good sign. If this were a good deal for taxpayers, I’m sure the governor would have mentioned it.
by James A. Bacon
The Van Kesteren family, owner of Van Kesteren Farms in Accomack County, wants to build solar panels on 180 acres as a way to supplement the income from its farming operations. But the price tag for connecting to the regional grid is posing a major barrier.
The estimate for connecting to the Eastern Shore electric grid has increased from $3-4 million in March 2017 to $26.5 million today, according to an article in Energy News Network. The article focuses mainly on the Van Kesteren family’s thwarted ambitions, as made clear by the sub-head: “An Eastern Shore farming family is frustrated that its solar project is at the mercy of the local utility and grid operator.”
But the story illustrates a broader story regarding a critical and often overlooked aspect of solar-power economics: how some proposed locations for solar farms can be rendered uncompetitive by high interconnection costs. Continue reading
Duke Energy solar farm
by James A. Bacon
The surge in solar power production in North Carolina has caused an increase in nitrogen oxide (NOx), a serious air pollutant, North Carolina’s Duke Energy has concluded. Without changes to state regulatory policy, according to a report by North State Journal, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions also could increase.
These counter-intuitive findings stem from the fact that solar power is an intermittent source of power, which must be offset by on-again, off-again generation from fossil fuel sources, primarily natural gas. The on-and-off cycling of power stations leads to inefficient combustion and higher NOx emissions. The effect on CO2 emissions is less clear, although utility officials raised the prospect of a “slight increase” in CO2 at the plant level under certain conditions.
I have no idea if Duke’s conclusions will stand up to close scrutiny. For sure, they will be attacked by those who are committed to intermittent renewable energy sources at any cost. But the debate in North Carolina is highly relevant to Virginia. North Carolina has the largest installed base of solar power of any state outside of California. But Virginia is adding solar capacity rapidly, and the Northam administration has set a goal of attaining a zero-carbon electric grid by 2050.
Let me be very clear. I am not advocating a dial-back in Virginia’s commitment to solar. But I do say, if we are going to aggressively expand our reliance upon an intermittent energy source, we need to know what we’re getting into. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
According to what the nation’s ruling elites tell us is the climate-change consensus, a warming climate increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. “Because global warming is intensifying, scientists expect the number of extreme storms to continue rising,” writes David Leonhardt, a New York Times opinion columnist.
One would think, then, that this insight would inform the remedies proposed for climate change, such as re-engineering the nation’s electric grid to rely almost exclusively upon wind and solar power. If the frequency and intensity of hurricanes is increasing, it would be appropriate to ask here in Virginia, what standards do we have in place for the construction of wind turbines and solar panels to ensure that they can withstand hurricane-force winds?
North Carolina had a recent opportunity to observe the interaction of hurricanes and solar panels. Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Tarheel state last month, striking solar a solar farm in Currituck County with wind speeds near 60 miles per hour. The solar arrays are supposed to withstand wind speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. How did they hold up? Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
If Virginians want more renewable energy, they need to solve a number of practical problems. One of those is how to decommission old solar panels and wind turbines. When their useful lives have expired, we can’t just let these devices litter the landscape and collect rust. In particular the question of what happens to old solar panels, which contain high levels of heavy metals like cadmium, is one that has concerned many residents of rural counties where solar farms have been proposed.
SolUnesco, a Reston-based developer of solar farms, has given considerable thought to how to plan for the end of utility-scale solar projects. As Lea Maamari and Melody S. Gee write in a company blog post, “finding a good balance of shared benefits, costs, and risks is in the best interest of all stakeholders.” Continue reading
Cricket Solar, developer of a proposed 1,600-acre solar farm in Culpeper County, has yanked its application in the face of extensive local opposition to the project, reports the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
“On behalf of Cricket Solar LLC, I am writing to formally withdraw Cricket’s Conditional Use Permit application,” wrote attorney Ann Neil Cosby in a letter to Culpeper County’s planning director. “Cricket has been working diligently over the last few months redesigning the project boundaries to protect wetlands, improve efficiencies, and respond to community concerns related to the project.”
A local group, Citizens for Responsible Solar (CSR), had called for the project to be delayed to address neighbors’ concerns about natural and historic resources in the area. Cricket gave no indication of if or when it might re-file.
Bacon’s bottom line: The delay-delay strategy has defeated a major solar farm project, at least for now. Now that CSR has scored a big victory, it is logical to ask whether the group will now rest on its laurels, content that it has protected its own back yard, or seek to build a crusade. Indications from its website are that the organization does plan to oppose other projects. Continue reading
Last December the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail is part of the National Park System, which blocks federal agencies from authorizing a pipeline crossing. Depending upon U.S. Supreme Court action, the ruling in the Cowpasture River Preservation Association v. U.S. Forest Service case could well doom the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which crosses the trail in order to connect Midwest shale gas with Southeastern markets.
Noah Sachs, an environmental law professor at the University of Richmond, asks a provocative question: “Did the Fourth Circuit really turn the Appalachian Trail into a ‘Great Wall’ that blocks all energy transport from the Midwest to the East Coast, as many energy industry analysts have suggested?”
In an essay in The American Prospect, Sachs argues that Cowpasture doesn’t preclude all crossings of the Appalachian Trail, so the “great wall” analogy may not be apt. But here’s a passage that I found profoundly disturbing:
The real significance of the Cowpasture case is that it uses the Appalachian Trail crossing as a legal hook to delay and block the pipeline and raise its costs. There’s nothing wrong with delay-and-block tactics. It’s a strategy that environmentalists have been using since the 1960s. And as the climate crisis heats up, it’s a virtuous one.
Energy efficiency done right. After investing $2 million over three years to update the energy and water infrastructure of Clark Hall, the University of Virginia calculates that it is saving $75o,ooo a year in electricity bills and $22,000 in water bills — a payback in less than three years. The university replaced 5,000 interior and exterior fixtures with LEDs, put into place an electronically controlled HVAC system, and installed low-flow toilets and faucet aerators, among other changes. Since 2010, Office of Sustainability projects have avoided $35 million in energy fees, reports the Cavalier Daily. Building automation kills two birds with one stone: It dampens runaway higher-ed costs, and it reduces energy consumption.
Wytheville as winner. The Brookings Institution has highlighted Wytheville, population 8,000, as a successful example of community development in a rural town. Step one: Invest in downtown place-making through streetscape renovations, improved sidewalks, lighting, and crosswalks. Step two: Create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem. With a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Urban Development, Downtown Wytheville launched a competition to recruit local businesses and build partnerships with property owners. Inducements such as reduced rent, mentorships, and $75,000 in prize money were used to recruit the businesses downtown. As a result Wytheville has two (not one, but two) breweries, a Vietnamese bakery, and an art school id didn’t have before. In 2018, downtown received $800,000 in public investment and $5.7 in private investment. Continue reading
Concerns about the reliability of the U.S. electricity supply has popped into the news headlines recently. The problem isn’t terrorists or cyber-attacks, it’s the inability of electric grid to handle routine challenges. Earlier this month, a transformer fire in Manhattan knocked out electric power to about 73,000 customers. On the West Coast, PG&E is spending $2.3 billion to fix a backlog of deficiencies in its transmission and distribution system that contributed to the record outbreak of wild fires in California last year. Meanwhile, the company has announced its intention to preemptively turn off power on vulnerable circuits to limit wildfire risk.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. energy infrastructure a D+ grade in its 2017 infrastructure report card. States the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card:
Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. … Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.