One of this year’s biggest solar bills is all about forests and farms

Virginia lawmakers try to balance conservation and clean energy priorities

By: - March 10, 2022 12:03 am

A solar array. (Getty Images)

Two years after the Clean Economy Act set sweeping targets for renewable energy development across Virginia, the General Assembly is trying to balance a boom in solar construction with the desire to preserve farmland and forests. 

In more rural parts of the state, particularly in the wealthier upper Piedmont region, some residents have complained about the clear-cutting of forests to put up panels and the encroachment of sprawling installations onto agricultural fields once available for rent. 

“The number-one thing I hear from communities in which we serve is concern about the loss of farms and forests with regard to these projects,” said Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, a nonprofit that works in nine counties stretching from Albemarle in the south to Loudoun in the north. 

Holmes points to a recent Virginia Commonwealth University analysis for the state’s Department of Energy as evidence that policymakers have a legitimate concern. That study found that roughly 8,000 of the 14,000 acres disturbed in Virginia for solar installations were previously forested, although it concluded individual solar farms are most likely to be sited on cropland. 

Policymakers worry those land conversions could have unintended consequences. In particular, they contend that the loss of forested land and the compaction of agricultural soils could hamper Virginia’s expensive, years-long effort to meet 2025 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals set by the federal government. 

“On the one hand we have solar developers that are trying to hit targets that we’ve set in the Clean Economy Act,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, in a Senate committee hearing last week. “On the other hand, you’ve got all the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay [cleanup]. … And basically, they’re almost like two freight trains kind of coming at each other.” 

House Bill 206

This General Assembly session,  House Bill 206 has proposed one solution. The bill, which came from the Piedmont Environmental Council and was carried by Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, requires the state to analyze the impact of small- and medium-sized solar and energy storage projects on forested lands and those containing prime agricultural soils, a federal classification defined in state law. 

If a project will affect 50 or more acres of forested land or 10 or more acres of prime agricultural soils, developers will have to provide mitigation for those impacts. What that mitigation looks like will be determined by what Petersen described as “the mother of all stakeholder groups” that will be convened by the Department of Environmental Quality. 

The law only applies to those projects reviewed under Virginia’s “permit by rule” process, which was created to fast-track reviews for solar and energy storage projects of 150 megawatts and less. Larger projects, which must be approved by the State Corporation Commission, would not be subject to the new rules. 

Hammered out over hours behind closed doors, the final version of the legislation, which has passed the Senate and cleared the House Wednesday, left few of the negotiators in the solar, agricultural and forestry industries satisfied. 

“Not everybody’s totally happy and not everybody’s totally mad,” Webert told a Senate panel. But the compromise “achieves a balance,” he said. 

The bill will now go to Gov. Glenn Youngkin for his signature. A spokesperson said he would review the legislation once it came to his desk.

Representatives of Virginia’s solar industry are wary of the legislation because of the chilling effect they fear it will have on development in the long term. They are mistrustful of Virginia Republicans’ broader efforts to roll back the Virginia Clean Economy Act and other Democratic legislation designed to transition the state from fossil fuels to renewables. 

Chip Dicks, a lawyer with Gentry Locke who represented a variety of Virginia solar developers and renewable energy buyers in the negotiations, said a major concern of the industry is that mitigation would be defined so narrowly as to mean that projects would have to avoid prime agricultural and forested lands entirely. 

That “would basically stop in its tracks most major solar projects in Virginia,” he told senators. 

Mike Rolband, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, told lawmakers that the agency sees mitigation as more than just avoidance of certain lands or resources. For solar developers, mitigation could also include efforts to minimize impacts through best management practices such as leaving certain tree buffers in place or compensation in the form of payments or investments elsewhere. 

Mitigation and exemptions

Particularly objectionable to the solar industry were HB 206’s acreage thresholds, which classify all disturbances of more than 10 acres of prime agricultural soils or 50 acres of adjacent forest as “significant adverse impacts” that require some form of mitigation. 

“The numbers seem arbitrary. There’s no particular scientific reason why it’s 10 acres and not 20 acres,” said Harry Godfrey, executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a business group that advocates for renewables and was a key negotiator of the Virginia Clean Economy Act. 

Instead, he contended that “the determination of whether it’s an adverse impact should take a lot of other factors into account.” He said it made more sense for those factors to be assessed during the local permitting process, which must be completed before a permit by rule project can get state approval.  

Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council, described the acreage thresholds as the product of negotiations. 

“The average parcel of land in forest use here in the commonwealth that’s privately owned land is 27 acres,” he told senators. “So we didn’t want to make it too hard on solar developers, but at the same time we need to conserve those acres.” 

Bill proponents say such conservation could also protect other state resources like the Chesapeake Bay. Because trees not only absorb water during storms but filter runoff through their roots, Virginia officials see forest preservation as one of the most effective tools for decreasing pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. 

“We’re kind of in a unique spot given our commitments to the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the commitments we’ve made to try to be as attractive to solar development as we can,” Shreve told the Mercury.

In return for the acreage thresholds, the compromise gives the solar industry a significant concession: no solar project that submits a request to connect with the regional electric grid by Dec. 31, 2024, is subject to the new rules. 

The grandfather clause, said Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, on the House floor this February, is intended “to ensure there are no interruptions” in projects already underway. 

“I just don’t think it’s fair to developers to change the rules midway in this process,” he said. 

Feelings on the exemption, as on the larger bill, were mixed. Some solar industry members worried it could spur a rush for land in the short term as developers scramble to get projects in the interconnection queue before the new requirements go into effect. And Holmes said the loophole means Virginia likely won’t see mitigation for solar impacts on farm and forestlands until 2028 at the earliest given the long timelines of projects to come to fruition. 

“I don’t think anyone loves the final version, but there was an acknowledgement of an issue that needs to be addressed and a pathway forward to have a conversation,” said Holmes. “For that, I think the bill provides an opportunity to figure out how we’re going to do this in a more sensible manner.” 

Solar growth across Virginia has provoked a range of reactions, particularly since the passage of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act mandating that the state’s two largest electric utilities propose more than 16 gigawatts of the energy resource by 2035.

Many Republicans in particular have decried what they say are solar’s destructive effects on natural resources. 

“Any time … you’re taking such a large land mass out of agricultural or forestal use, the negative environmental impacts are going to be far greater than any potential environmental impacts from not burning coal,” said Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, in February. 

But Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, argued that putting additional requirements on solar developers to offset forest and farmland impacts would slow solar growth in less affluent rural areas like Southside, where many local governments see the industry as a way to bolster tight budgets. 

While areas like those represented by HB 206 patron Webert may enjoy high household incomes, “you come to my part of the state where you have a household income of about $35,000 a year,” said Marshall. “It might help his part of the state, but it’s going to hurt my part of the state.” 

Forest owners and farmers are also split on solar expansion.

“It really depends on which producers you’re talking to,” said Shreve. “Some producers love it and are using it to supplement the farm income they have so they can keep farming.” Others, though, “are decrying what they see as just, especially the big projects, taking up a ton of land.” 

Shreve is adamant that the agriculture industry is not anti-solar. 

“This really was about the placement,” he said. “Not should we try to incentivize solar, not how much solar we should get for the grid, but really what happens when they’re placed in the ground.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Chip Dicks’ name. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.