Siting and Scale are Key
First, localities ought to establish clear standards for siting industrial-scale projects. Permitting guidelines should consider both the appropriateness of a site as well as any requirements for upgraded transmission infrastructure. Local ordinances and comprehensive plans must be considered to better understand if the project is compatible with future vision for that area.
Considering Solar in Your Community
- Minimize impacts to farm soils. Here in the Valley, we have some of the finest agricultural soils in the nation. When it’s not feasible for a solar installation to avoid prime agricultural soils, grading, compression and soil disturbance should be minimized so that a site can be used for farming again in the future.
- Avoid historic, cultural and scenic resources. In the wrong location, industrial-scale solar installations could run counter to a locality’s pursuit of historic resource protection and tourism associated with historic and scenic assets.
- Protect clean water. Effective erosion control and stormwater management during construction and during the life of the project is key to protecting groundwater and local streams.
- Return sites to pre-construction condition. Effective decommissioning provisions should be included in all industrial-scale solar projects, ensuring that the land can be used for productive agriculture or other use after the life of the contract (generally 25-30 years).
- Consider lasting infrastructure impacts. Will a solar project require new or upgraded transmission lines or substations? The impacts of the new infrastructure should be assessed along with the impacts of the solar project. Local ordinances and comprehensive plans should also be consulted in order to ensure compatible development that is right for each community.
- Support continued agriculture or wildlife habitat. Some utility-scale solar projects allow for continued grazing (generally sheep) or hay in conjunction with the installation, and others use native or pollinator plants, contributing to the farm economy and minimizing the need for extensive herbicide application.
Impacts to local communities — including agriculture, scenic and historic resources and risks to water quality — must be carefully considered in siting decisions. Questions could include: “Are there brownfields or previously developed or degraded lands that could be priority lands for siting?” and “Are there compatible agricultural uses which could co-exist with these types of projects?”
Thoughtful solar projects include erosion and sediment control and stormwater management as well as plans to minimize the spread of invasive plants. Finally, such proposals should always include provisions to restore the land at the end of a project’s life span – usually in 25 to 30 years.
Are Incentives for Solar Driving the Right Projects in Virginia?
Solar installations fall into two categories: industrial-scale solar where the power is fed directly into the grid (sometimes called utility-scale), and distributed solar where the energy is used on the home, farm, business or school where it is generated (sometimes called behind-the-meter).
Virginia law supports a growing market for utilities to build industrial-scale solar projects, but it has not kept up with the needs of homeowners, farmers, businesses and schools to invest in small-scale projects. Currently, Virginia law lacks incentives for distributed solar, and, worse, policy barriers slow down customers’ access to these projects.
In the coming months, the Alliance will be working with communities to encourage sensible guidelines for siting industrial-scale projects, and working with our state legislators to find ways to break down barriers to local, small-scale energy.
- Southern Environmental Law Center Solar Initiative Solar Policy Brief
- Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley Guidelines on Utility Scale Solar
- Virginia Conservation Network_2019 Briefing Book Utility Scale Solar
- NC Clean Energy Technology Center
- The County Pulse Podcast – Virginia Association of Counties Podcast – Utility-Scale Solar Energy