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Bill to limit local restrictions on solar projects in Virginia paused for more study

Dominion Energy’s Scott Solar facility in Powhatan County, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
Dominion Energy’s Scott Solar facility in Powhatan County, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Legislation that would have limited Virginia localities’ ability to restrict development of solar projects is dead for the year after a House subcommittee voted Tuesday to carry the proposal over to 2025. 

But its patron, Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Richmond, said he “will be back” with the proposal next year because he sees it as crucial to meeting the mandates of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, the state’s plan to decarbonize its electric grid by midcentury.

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

“If we can’t pass a bill like this, there’s no way we’re going to meet our clean energy goals in the VCEA because this is the softest touch,” said VanValkenburg before the vote. 

Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, said she had heard about “some very deep concerns from localities,” indicating the idea might need more study before becoming law.

“We have consistently throughout this session sought to find some middle ground with potential unintended consequences for localities,” Mundon King said. “This is something that we need to explore further.” 

Ahead of the 2025 session, the legislation will go to Virginia’s reinvigorated Commission on Electric Utility Regulation for review.

An earlier version of VanValkenburg’s bill would have prohibited local governments from banning solar installations outright. After pushback, the legislation was softened to say localities couldn’t limit the total amount, density or size of solar or energy storage projects as long as the overall area covered by panels within the locality remained under 4% of its land.

The solar industry and environmental groups argued the bill was necessary for the state to meet the requirements of the VCEA  given bans and limits imposed by some local governments on solar projects. 

“It doesn’t mandate solar deployment,” said Greg Habeeb, a lobbyist for the Solar Energy Industry Association. “It does nothing but say counties must allow landowners to present their chosen use, their chosen development project.”

The need is particularly pressing as energy demand grows in the state, said Patrick Cushing, a lobbyist for the American Clean Power Association, a clean energy industry group.

“We are going to have to generate electricity somewhere,” he said. “We prefer that to be clean.”

But local governments and the agriculture and forestry industries said the law would unfairly usurp local control over land use decisions. Even the 4% trigger allowing localities to place limits on growth if solar development hit a certain peak “does not take into account the unique circumstances in each individual locality,” said Justin Sanders, a senior planner with Montgomery County.

Localities are “stepping up to meet the demands for clean energy,” said Joe Lerch, policy director for the Virginia Association of Counties. Sixty-nine counties, he noted, have approved solar projects that would produce about 12,000 megawatts of power and cover about 180 square miles. 

“We really do believe that this deserves further study and the opportunity for localities and citizens to work with the patron and its supporters to find a bill that will balance the needs of increased solar energy development in the commonwealth and local land use,” Sanders said.