Panel says Virginia should do more to promote solar development on brownfields

Despite tensions over solar land use, state has few mechanisms to encourage ‘brightfields’

By: - May 2, 2022 12:02 am

Virginia should do more to encourage developers to site solar on brownfields rather than prime agricultural and forested land, panelists at the Virginia Solar Summit in Richmond Thursday said.

Virginia should do more to encourage developers to site solar on brownfields rather than prime agricultural and forested land, panelists at  the Virginia Solar Summit in Richmond Thursday said. 

“The brownfields I think is an easy one,” said Ron Butler, state director for the Virginia chapter of Conservatives for Clean Energy during the panel discussion on statewide solar policy. “I don’t know why we haven’t already done it, since everywhere I go that’s the first thing that people say.” 

Brownfields are previously developed lands that may be environmentally contaminated, including former industrial sites, mines and landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 450,000 brownfields nationwide, and the Virginia Department of Energy has estimated that 100,000 acres of land formerly used for surface mining of coal alone is available for redevelopment in Virginia. 

Policymakers have been eyeing such sites as good candidates for solar energy, both because many already have infrastructure in place to connect with the electric grid and because their potential contamination may make them less attractive for uses like residential or commercial development. 

In Virginia, these so-called “brightfields” could also prove one solution to rising tensions over the significant land use requirements of large-scale solar installations as the state moves to decarbonize its electric grid by midcentury. 

One year after Clean Economy Act’s passage, solar land use tensions linger

“There’s benefits,” said West Virginia Del. Evan Hansen, a Democrat who also co-owns environmental and economic development consultancy Downstream Strategies. “The electrical infrastructure and other infrastructure might already exist on these sites, but there are challenges as well that make it more tempting to go to a greenfield site.” 

“Greenfields” are sites that have not been previously developed and may be used for agriculture or forest purposes. 

But despite interest in repurposing brownfields as brightfields, Virginia offers no incentives for solar developers to choose those sites in favor of others.

A 2021 law, HB1925, sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott — now the House Majority Leader — created a program to offer grants for “renewable energy projects located on brownfields or previously coal mined lands.” But while the proposal got unanimous support from the General Assembly, the program remains unfunded and the law specifies that state monies can’t be allocated to it “unless federal funds are available to cover the entire cost of such allocation.”  

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Currently, there are no incentives for solar on brownfields,” said Virginia Department of Energy spokesperson Tarah Kesterson in an email. 

Several panelists Thursday said state policies such as accelerating permitting for brownfield sites could encourage the development of solar there. 

“If in fact in Virginia everybody agrees we should do brownfields, then make an incentive or make a policy that says, ‘If you want to do that, you’re fast-tracked,’” said Paul Curran, founder of BQ Energy, a renewable energy company that specializes in developing wind and solar on brownfield and landfill sites, including in Virginia. “I think what we need to do is sort of look at what do we agree on and how do we move those things forward really quickly.” 

The Virginia Solar Energy Development and Energy Storage Authority also concluded this December that “to see significant investment into small and mid-scale solar projects on brownfields, additional policy and incentives like HB1925 may need to be enacted and/or funded.” 

To date, only a few solar projects are being developed on brownfields in Virginia, including a combined storage and solar site underway in the town of Saltville and plans for a solar installation adjacent to the town of Bedford’s landfill

Chris McDonald, government relations director for Richmond-based firm Williams Mullen, said Thursday during the panel that while brownfields solar hasn’t been a priority in the Capitol, discussions have begun “in earnest.” 

Some momentum has come from policy negotiations over this past session’s House Bill 206, which will require the state to analyze the impact of small- and medium-sized solar and energy storage projects on lands containing forest or federally defined prime agricultural soils. 

“There was a lot of talk about maybe there’s a way to incentivize brownfield redevelopment in lieu of prime ag land development,” said McDonald. “I think there will be a lot of discussion about that in the off season, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least bit to see some legislation introduced in the next session in January.” 

In an interview with the Mercury, Robert Kell of environmental and economic development nonprofit Appalachian Voices said potential legislation could also allow state funds to go toward the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Program established by HB1925.

“We have a huge surplus. … The state should see this as an investment opportunity,” he said. 

Kilgore told the Mercury Friday that the funding restrictions in his brownfields bill were due to the financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and that he hopes to put forward legislation next session allowing the use of state funds. He also said he has spoken with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, including senior adviser Andrew Wheeler, about obtaining federal funding for the grant program.

“There’s a lot of folks that are helping me look, and we hope to be able to draw down some federal funds,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but I think we can get there.”

How consequential brightfields will be for Virginia’s energy transition is uncertain. On Thursday McDonald questioned whether brownfields would be sufficient to meet the goals of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which will require the state’s electric utilities to propose more than 16 gigawatts of solar by 2035. 

“Are there really enough brownfields to actually meet those numbers? And I think most people, the quick answer is no, not really,” he said. “I think that’s a discussion that needs to be had and some more research needs to be done about is that even a practical or viable path forward.” 

Butler said brownfield development should be seen as a part of a broader strategy for solar development. 

“I think you have to do all of these things,” he said. “Community solar is part of it. Rooftop solar is part of it. Utility-scale solar is a part of it. There’s a piece for everything, and they can co-exist.” 

Kilgore told the Mercury that he sees brightfields as an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together.

“Both sides of the aisle are beginning to embrace solar and realize that solar should be part of an energy solution for the commonwealth and the nation,” he 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. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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