Five takeaways from the landmark Virginia Solar Survey

Report on solar’s spread is first of its kind in Virginia

By: - April 26, 2022 12:01 am

Solar panels on the roof of Powhatan Elementary School. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

After a slow start, solar has been booming in Virginia. 

From having zero large-scale solar farms in 2015, the commonwealth now has 51 in operation, with more than half found in the central and Southside regions. Distributed solar — which includes rooftop solar and small ground arrays that provide power at or near the place where it is used — has also seen a sharp increase. Installations have more than quintupled since 2017, with more than 26,000 in operation by the end of 2021. 

As solar has mushroomed across the landscape, driven in large part by the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, it’s also gotten more political. Solar is land-intensive, and the transition to a more decentralized energy system means that people and communities once largely insulated from energy production are now dealing with it in their backyards — often quite literally. 

But as policymakers grapple with how to handle the solar boom, statewide information has often proved elusive. 

“It felt like the information we were getting was piecemeal,” said Elizabeth Marshall, senior project coordinator of the Virginia Solar Initiative at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center. “When we looked at the available data sources, each one gave us a snapshot. But it was really difficult to put the pieces together.”  

In an effort to fill that gap, this week Weldon Cooper and the Virginia Department of Energy released the Virginia Solar Survey, the state’s first comprehensive roundup of what solar has been developed, where and how local governments have handled the projects. Of Virginia’s 133 localities, 109 responded, providing what the report says is “confidence that the results reflect statewide trends and patterns.” 

“At the end of the day, it does give a nice overview of what’s going on in Virginia regionally,” said Aaron Berryhill, the Department of Energy’s solar program manager. 

Here’s five key takeaways from the report.

1. Virginia lacks a single centralized source of information on state solar development

No, Virginia, there is no one website you can click onto to figure out just how much solar the state has in operation at any given moment. 

Part of that is due to the fact that local governments in Virginia are the primary authority when it comes to solar siting and permitting issues, meaning that records are dispersed throughout the 133 localities. And while utility-scale and community solar projects require state approval as well, different regulators oversee those permits depending on project size. 

“Collectively,” local, state and regional data “provide a very broad snapshot of potential proposed solar projects,” the Virginia Solar Survey concluded. “However, these data sources are not all reconciled with one another and can often be misleading.” 

“There’s obviously a need for a greater dataset around this type of development,” said Berryhill.

2. Local governments have approved roughly 80 percent of all utility-scale and community solar projects they’ve reviewed

While several particularly large-scale solar projects such as Strata Solar’s rejected Culpeper project have sparked intense opposition, Virginia Solar Survey numbers show that local governments have in fact signed off on the majority of plans.  

“This dataset seems to show that actually a lot are being approved,” said Berryhill. 

Of 148 applications for utility-scale solar reviewed by the 109 localities that responded to the survey, only 10 were denied. Thirteen of 131 community solar projects — defined as those producing up to five megawatts of power — were also turned down. 

That doesn’t mean all the rest were built, however. Nineteen utility-scale and 12 community-scale projects were withdrawn before local authorities could make a decision on them, a move that could reflect either changes on the developer’s end or a signal from local leaders that approval was unlikely should the project be put to a vote. 

“Some developers may see the writing on the wall,” said Berryhill.

3. A number of local governments still haven’t incorporated solar considerations into their ordinances and policies

Many local governments have struggled to adapt to the influx of large-scale solar projects in their communities, where they have implications for not only tax revenue but also land use, stormwater and long-term disposal needs. 

Marshall said that in particular, the comprehensive plan for land use all local governments are required to adopt “represents an opportunity for localities to think more deeply about their long-range energy planning.”

Nevertheless, many have yet to update those policies and ordinances. 

Of the 109 respondents surveyed, 18 said they had not updated local policies with regards to solar and didn’t plan to, while 31 said their comprehensive plan doesn’t include plans to address renewable energy and they don’t intend to incorporate them in future versions. Asked if their comprehensive plan prioritizes general areas of types of lands preferred for utility-scale solar, 70 percent of respondents said no. 

“Staff attempted to add this but it became a point of contention that staff generally avoid,” one response said. 

Other responses indicate that many local governments see the review process attached to getting a conditional or special use permit as their primary way of regulating solar development. 

“Our community prefers to retain consideration of public utility land uses through special use permitting, with standard considerations that may result of a mix of standard conditions and conditions unique to the proposal/project,” wrote one respondent.

Marshall also noted that some localities’ decision not to update their policies and ordinances “might be reflective of the size of the locality or the density,” because more urbanized areas might not have any space available for large-scale solar.

4. Despite potential cost savings, most local governments have no plans to begin sourcing their power from solar

Around Virginia, schools have become especially interested in sourcing their power from solar through third-party power purchase agreements as a way to drive down their operating costs. 

Local governments too are allowed to adopt solar through PPAs or self-financing, and 17 of the 109 surveyed reported already doing so. But most said they either had no plans to do so or simply weren’t sure about providing an answer to the question. 

Fifty-eight respondents didn’t know which buildings the local government supplied power to, and over 70 percent said the locality didn’t have a policy requiring that solar be considered in designing new public buildings. 

Asked about their biggest concerns about incorporating solar into their locality’s generation mix, respondents listed not only long-term costs and maintenance worries but mixed community feelings about renewables. 

Leaders are “keenly aware that solar energy production is highly land-consumptive and that solar energy providers want the lower cost farm land with no development improvements,” wrote one. “The industry is incentivized to produce solar power. The industry should be incentivized, to a greater degree, to install solar panels over impervious surfaces at industrial sites, big box parking lots, shopping malls, etc.” 

5. Roughly a quarter of local governments have seen plans for energy storage in their locality

Solar isn’t the only renewable technology facing local governments. Roughly a quarter of localities that responded to the survey said an energy storage project had been proposed or planned for their locality, although just over 6 percent said they currently have an active permitted storage project. 

Most of those projects are for lithium-ion or other forms of batteries, and about half are for standalone storage installations rather than those connected to solar.  

“The energy storage language in state code is brand new and will likely take time to consider at the local level,” one respondent wrote. “Huge batteries storing energy is much different than [photovoltaic] systems harnessing the power of the sun and sending it to the established grid.”

Of 20 localities, half also said they required emergency preparedness plans for utility-scale battery storage projects.   

“We will be considering an ordinance permitting energy storage as that appears to be inevitable,” one respondent said.

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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.