Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Solar Farms in Virginia

Scott Cameron, Vice-Chair of the NVSWCD Board of Directors, spoke to the Potomac Watershed Roundtable at our most recent meeting. His topic was the Environmental Considerations of Utility Scale Solar  “Farms.” The article below is a summary of his talk.

Virginia’s utility scale solar development was stimulated initially (as intended) by the statutory requirement of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA).  The 2020 VCEA is the state’s law outlining a path to decarbonize the electric grid by 2050. VCEA requires the Commonwealth to retire its natural gas power plants by 2045 (Dominion) and 2050 (Appalachian Power). It also requires utilities to develop more than 16,000MW of renewable energy by 2035. 

However, the demand for renewable energy grew exponentially due to the demands from data centers located primarily in Northern Virginia in the Potomac River Basin. In the stampede to build utility scale solar a series of issues have arisen. The developers of these utility scale solar came to Virginia from desert locations where the land was open and unused. In Virginia solar developers are cutting down forests and converting prime farmland. These lands had provided green infrastructure to manage stormwater, allowed groundwater to be recharged, provided water quality benefits, and fish and wildlife habitat.

According to Mr. Cameron, the acreage permitted for utility scale solar developments in Virginia is growing at an average of 77% per year based on a regression model. In real life it takes 5-12 acres to create 1 megawatt of solar generating capacity. So that under the VCEA that would 317,000 acres would be converted to solar by 2045. However, those solar farms only generate power when the sun shines and data centers, the driving force of the entire power structure in Virginia these days, operate a flat demand 24/7. Today, data centers represent 21% of Dominion Energy’s Virginia power demand and are forecast to be 40% by 2030.

To power data centers with renewable power, batter storage will have to be built to power the data centers at night and when it is overcast (remember it rains an average of 44 inches a year in Virginia). The charge the batteries additional solar developments will have to be built. According to an analysis by the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) the data center demand for power drives a loss of about 1,500,000 acres by 2050, assuming no additional nuclear or natural gas to keep the data centers operating after dark.

According to VCU, about 61% of the roughly 30,000 acres of agriculture land that has be used so far for solar projects is “highly suitable cropland.” In addition, as of 2023, more than 10,000 acres of forest land have already been lost to the utility scale solar. However, under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the other Chesapeake Bay states, Virginia owes the region 48,000 acres of new forest by 2025, but have only planted 6,600 acres of trees. On net,  we are 3,400 acres further from Virginia’s tree planting goal than we were in 2017. We are going backward in our environmental progress.

In addition, as rain storms intensify due to the changing climate, and green infrastructure of forests,  and open land are removed; storm water flooding and sediment flushing into streams, rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay increases. This is all compounded by the fact that utility scale solar developers came to Virginia from the dessert with no experience handling stormwater. Our wet (and getting wetter) environment requires Virginia to have stormwater regulations. However,  according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) 69% of existing solar facilities had regulatory “issues” with stormwater and erosion control as of April 2023. Solar stormwater pollution undercuts the urban investment Virginia has made. Last year NOVA invested $135 million in stormwater management. Over the next five years Virginia is budgeted to spend a billion dollars on stormwater management.


Solar Project from ESE

Mr. Cameron suggests that Virginia needs to change the incentives in the state law. Virginia needs to implement disincentives in siting utility scale solar developments in forests and prime farmland. Promote “agro-voltaics” which are spacing the solar panels further apart and higher to allow sheep grazing and crop cultivation. (funny note in experiments with grazing only sheep were successful, the cows knocked down the solar panels and the goats climbed on them.)  Mr. Cameron went on to suggest that we need to incentive solar siting on brownfields, residential and commercial structures, an parking lots. Delegate Paul Krizek has bills in this legislative session: HB 197. HB 198, and HB 199.   

DEQ is also working on the problem. DEQ’s stormwater Guidance Memo 22-2012 issued in November 2022 goes into effect at the end of this year and requires more stringent stormwater controls for utility scale solar that has not yet been connected to the grid by 12/31/2024. In addition, DEQ established a work group as required by  HB 206 to assist with developing regulations under its small renewable energy permit-by-rule (PBR) program, addressing ways to avoid, minimize, and/or mitigate damage to prime agricultural soil and forest caused by the construction and operation of renewable energy solar projects. DEQ must promulgate these regulations no later than the end of 2024. Make sure to comment on the regulations.

Solar carports at METRO

Dominion Solar Development


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