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In Virginia, new debates over who gets the final say on solar projects

Norge Solar in James City County and Winterberry Solar in Gloucester County will provide power to 10,000 homes on the Peninsula. Photo by Nick McNamara
Norge Solar in James City County and Winterberry Solar in Gloucester County will provide power to 10,000 homes on the Peninsula. Photo by Nick McNamara

 As Virginia continues its efforts to decarbonize its electric grid by midcentury, lawmakers are grappling with whether the state or local governments should have the ultimate say over where — or whether — solar farms should be built.

This story was reported and written by our media partner The Virginia Mercury

Bills this session from Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, proposed giving state utility regulators the authority to override a local government’s denial of a solar project.  Another, from Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Richmond, would prevent localities from passing ordinances that ban development of solar projects within their boundaries.

While the bills from Deeds and Sullivan have stalled, with legislators in both the House and Senate voting to delay their consideration until next year, VanValkenburg’s proposal passed out of committee last week.

The proposals come as environmental groups and energy companies say Virginia must speed up its adoption of renewables to meet the mandates of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which requires that Dominion Energy submit proposals to regulators for 3,000 megawatts of solar in its Virginia territory by the end of 2024.

“We don’t have a single day to spare, let alone another year to punt on this issue,” said Victoria Higgins, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

But local governments argue the proposals unfairly usurp their authority on decisions that have immediate local impacts, such as the loss of agricultural and forested land.

Counties, said Joe Lerch, policy director for the Virginia Association of Counties, “should have the authority to decide with input of their landowners and their citizens and balancing those property rights of everybody.”

State involvement in local land use decisions

Deeds’ and Sullivan’s legislation would have allowed the state greater involvement in land use approvals for particular solar, onshore wind and energy storage projects.

Currently, solar developers have to get approval from the county board of supervisors for their projects. The bills would still have called for local review of projects over 50 megawatts in size, but they would have ordered local governments to make a decision on the application within 120 days of submission and would have let the developer seek approval through the State Corporation Commission if the application was denied but met criteria laid out in the law.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network said data from the  Solar Energy Industries Association shows the path for solar development needs to be smoothed: While almost 2,000 megawatts of solar were brought online in Virginia in both 2020 and 2021, the group says, those numbers fell to just over 500 megawatts in both 2022 and 2023. 

But Lerch said that shouldn’t override local input.

“The crazy thing is it’s for really large projects, it’s the 50 megawatts and above,” he said. “That’s the one where localities, more than anything, would want to be able to see if it fits within their jurisdiction.” 

Dominion too opposed the legislation, saying it’s on track to meet its 2024 solar goals and has successfully cooperated with numerous local governments.

“We have a longstanding track record of working cooperatively with cities and counties on local zoning issues and don’t support taking that authority away from local governments,” said Aaron Ruby, a spokesperson for the utility. “As far as I’m aware, we’ve never had a local zoning permit denied for utility-scale solar.”

Sullivan said the bill was intended to get people’s attention. 

“It was meant to start that conversation as to how we make sure that we can get to where we want to go while trying to respect local control, but recognizing a state priority,” he said. 

Local bans

VanValkenburg’s legislation has sparked more conversation. 

In its earliest form, the bill sought to prevent localities from adopting outright bans on solar projects by declaring they must be permitted as a special use. An amended version introduced Thursday added a caveat: Bans would be allowed if a solar facility takes up more than 4% of the county’s land. It also noted no local government would be required to approve an application or be prevented from requiring a developer to provide tree cover and stormwater management plans.

“It says that localities have to have a process in place,” VanValkenburg said of the bill. “It says that it can be restrictive, it can be not restrictive.”

Currently, Lunenburg and Clarke County have outright solar bans, while the counties of Henry, Mecklenburg, Pittsylvania, Isle of Wight and Nottoway impose various limits on the amount of land that can be used for solar.

Members of the energy industry say those restrictions are having a dampening effect on solar development in Virginia.

“What we’re seeing [with] more and more of our developer clients is just looking elsewhere outside of Virginia,” said Greg Habeeb, a former legislator and now partner at the lobbying and consulting firm Gentry Locke, during a recent meeting of the state’s Solar Energy Development and Storage Authority.

Lerch, however, noted that counties in Virginia have approved roughly 250 solar projects that account for about 10 gigawatts of power. 

“We think that this bill is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said. 

Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, argued local bans are an infringement on private property rights. If a farmer is struggling to make money through agricultural production and wants to lease their land for solar in order to bring in more income, a ban would prohibit them from doing so, he pointed out.

“There is a thousand ways they can kill these projects,” Hackworth said. “This just simply says they cannot say to a property owner in that county, ‘We’re not even looking at it.’”

Still, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Bedford, expressed concerns about widespread development of solar in his Southside district and the loss of local government power to decide how land is used.

“I believe everytime we dictate a one-size-fits-all answer for this area, this area loses,” Stanley said.

The bill cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate Local Government Committee on a 9-6 vote, with Hackworth joining Democrats in support.