ACCOMAC—In 2015, Accomack County, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, was making plans for the installation of the state’s largest solar farm at the time—producing 80 megawatts of power.
It took several years for the county to figure it all out. When all the paperwork was done, the project was touted as a major boost to the economy by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Secretary of Natural Resources David Paylor, who traveled from Richmond to deliver the very first permit of its kind that would expedite the project.
Since then, Virginia’s solar landscape has changed. More solar farms have been built and proposals have been made for much bigger and more concentrated projects, totaling more than a billion dollars in investment and covering thousands of acres of land.
Attitudes about solar energy have evolved as well, with this burgeoning industry prompting a mix of optimism, concern and uncertainty.
Compare Community Energy Solar’s farm, located on 44 different parcels of Accomack farmland, on a total of 965 acres, with the 500-megawatt farm proposed by the Sustainable Power Group on a 6,300-acre site in Spotsylvania County. Late last month, Charles City County approved another sPower permit application for a 340-megawatt solar farm on some 1,400 acres.
The driving forces behind solar are web services such as Microsoft, which has contracted with sPower in Spotsylvania, and Amazon, which purchases power from Accomack and other farms for its data centers. To offset their increasing power needs, the companies have promised to use alternative energy.
But Amazon would require some 7,000 megawatts of solar to meet its demand in Virginia, according to Ivy Main, who chairs the Sierra Club’s Renewable Energy Committee. To get that number, Main crunched data from a Greenpeace report released in February.
According to Dominion Energy, 160 to 200 acres are needed to produce 20 megawatts of solar power.
It didn’t take long for the large-scale (also called utility) solar farms to lose their luster for Accomack County. Elected officials made the decision to define their economy.
In 2017, the county’s Board of Supervisors said it didn’t want to lose any more farmland to huge solar or wind projects. Located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the county of about 33,000 people is home to Tyson and Purdue poultry processing plants, along with a multitude of industrial poultry houses and the farms that grow grain to feed the birds.
The supervisors voted to change zoning laws to remove large-scale solar farms as a conditional use on agricultural-zoned land and limit them to the few industrial areas in the county.
“We are an agricultural powerhouse: We’re ranked number one in grain production and number two in vegetables and broilers [in the state],” said County Administrator Michael Mason. “Agricultural property is highly prized.”
That economic impact, he said, is reflected in the county’s latest comprehensive plan by emphasizing the preservation of large tracts of land being used for agricultural production.
To Mason, that’s the biggest difference between Accomack and Spotsylvania, where sPower wants to build its proposed solar farm on three tracts that were being timbered.
Still, Spotsylvania and other counties might learn from Accomack’s solar farm experience.
Mason said another reason Accomack changed zoning was changes made to state taxes that cut into a locality’s ability to tax solar equipment.
In 2016, the General Assembly subsidized solar and wind energy by providing an 80 percent sales and use tax exemption for machinery, tools, and equipment of a public service corporation.
Accomack’s 80-megawatt farm was grandfathered in and still collects its full amount, which was $1.1 million last year in machinery and tool taxes on solar panels. But Mason said if the county were to allow a new large-scale solar farm now, the 2016 law would lower its tax rate on solar panels down to 20 percent.
“That was the catalyst to make the change,” said Mason. “Our board’s position has been that it’s not worth taking true agricultural property and converting it to solar for just pennies on the dollar, as far as tax revenue.”
Accomack Supervisor Grayson Chesser isn’t against solar, but said it should be secondary to food. He doesn’t think solar should be subsidized by localities.
“If the state wants to support solar, they should do it out of their revenue stream, not out of the local government’s,” he said. “The only two sources of revenue that we have that amount to much are property taxes on real estate and property tax on equipment. It’ll be a cold day in hell when I vote to let them pay less tax than a guy with a five- or six-year-old pickup, with tool boxes on the back and who’s doing home repairs for people.”
He also said it’s likely that as solar panels get older, taxes will depreciate. The State Corporation Commission determines the value annually.
Like Accomack, Spotsylvania repealed local tax exemptions for large-scale solar facilities.
Some in Spotslvania voiced what has been a concern among those living near proposed large-scale solar farms: Will the county lose millions of dollars in tax revenue and will homes nearby lose value?
PLUSES AND MINUSES
Bill Johnson, a member of the Rappahannock Group Sierra Club, took a strong stance on that in a recent statement supporting the sPower project.
“It is pure conjecture to say that taxes would go down, based on ‘what if’ speculation about possible land uses,” Johnson wrote.
SPower said its solar farm would produce $21 million in new tax revenue and $25 million more in additional funds for Spotsylvania over the 35-year life of the facility, noting that the property under its current use would generate less than $1 million in tax revenue over that time.
But opponents argue that the county would lose revenue because the solar farm would decrease property values in the neighboring Fawn Lake subdivision and curtail the potential for new development in the area.
Johnson is keen on what sPower can do for Spotsylvania, such as paying for half the cost of upgrading water lines in the area.
Accomack negotiated $200,000 in proffers—half was used for solar panels to offset costs for power at a local park and an adjacent county office building. Another $100,000 was used to remove some of the derelict houses that have plagued the county.
“In the big scheme of things, that’s maybe a starting salary for three teachers or two dump trucks, nothing to get that excited about,” Chesser said of the proffers.
Chesser also points out the many jobs that initially came to the county to build solar farms disappeared quickly once the work was complete. He said the remaining solar jobs in Accomack were upkeep of the farms—mowing and making sure the buffers around them survive and maintaining panels. Those, he said, are contracted out and represent only a few jobs.
Chesser, who prefers a view of corn or soy fields over solar arrays, said buffers planted with intermittent trees and bushes are inadequate.
“Really you need a row of red cedars, pines, wax myrtle, stuff that will grow fairly quick,” he said. “That way, at least you wouldn’t have to look at them.”
Jim Johnson, one of the landowners who is leasing his Accomack farm, is quite happy with the solar panels in his backyard. He prefers them to the smell of chicken manure that was used as fertilizer on his fields, and the money he gets from his lease will go toward his retirement.
He said he agrees with Chesser that the buffers could have been done better, but he’s willing to be patient.
“You know, it’s like going to McDonald’s. The hamburger you see on the menu is never the one you get in that little plastic box,” said Johnson. “What we were shown isn’t what we really got. Maybe in another 10 or 15 years, when the trees mature, it will look like that, but I can’t expect them to use full mature trees.”