ANOTHER local grassroots group is challenging an out-of- state company’s plans to erect an industrial-size solar farm on agriculturally-zoned land in Virginia. Last time, the fight was in Spotsylvania County. This time it’s in Culpeper County.
California-based Cricket Solar LLC wants to install 386,100 solar panels along existing Dominion Energy transmission lines on 1,800 acres of rural land along the Algonquin Trail near historic Raccoon Ford. The proposed 80-megawatt solar plant is expected to generate $1.7 million in tax revenue over the 40-year life of the project.
Another 1,000-acre solar plant near Stevensburg was approved by the Culpeper Board of Supervisors last October after the county’s Planning Commission recommended denial, but that project is currently in litigation.
The proliferation of large solar farms in rural areas of the commonwealth was spurred by 2016 legislation passed by the General Assembly that subsidizes wind and solar facilities, which are also heavily subsidized at the federal level.
But even with massive government subsidies and tax breaks, a recent University of Chicago study concluded that in states that adopted renewable energy portfolio standards, the amount of energy generated by renewables was only 4.2 percent higher after 12 years, while retail electricity rates increased 17 percent. “These cost estimates significantly exceed the marginal operational costs of renewables, and likely reflect costs that renewables impose on the generation system, including those associated with their intermittency, higher transmission costs, and any stranded asset costs assigned to ratepayers.”
So much for “free” energy from the sun.
The General Assembly’s intent in 2016 was to add more renewables to the state’s energy mix. But the math needed to significantly expand solar energy in Virginia is brutal: It takes up to 200 acres of solar panels to generate 20 megawatts of electricity. And the large tracts of land needed to make a major solar project economically feasible are usually found in rural areas, most zoned for agricultural use.
But a large solar farm generating electricity is an industrial use of the land—quite the opposite of agricultural. Which raises the question: Should these industrial-scale facilities be built on land specifically zoned for agricultural activities?
Earlier this year, the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors answered that question in the affirmative when it approved a massive 500-megawatt solar farm on 6,300 rural acres. Now Culpeper supervisors are once again considering expanding their county’s solar footprint as well.
But Susan Ralston, president of Citizens for Responsible Solar, told The Free Lance-Star that a survey by McLaughlin & Associates commissioned by her grassroots group found that 57 percent of Culpeper County residents oppose the Cricket Solar project, and an online petition has generated 1,200 signatures in just three weeks.
Opponents, including “Gettysburg” director Ron Maxwell, cite environmental degradation, out-of-state companies hiring out-of-state workers, and the perceived threat to property values, historic preservation efforts, and the county’s tourism industry.
“We’re not opposed to solar, but solar panels should be installed on city rooftops, industrial-zoned or contaminated land. We oppose putting them on agricultural land,” Ralston said, noting that Cricket’s proposed solar farm “is the equivalent of putting 439 Walmart Supercenters across the street.”
“There’s a lot of money at stake, and counties are not thinking about the long-term consequences,” she continued. “Solar projects all over Virginia are changing the landscape.”
Indeed they are. Thousands of acres of Virginia’s rural countryside are now in play as solar companies jockey to provide renewable energy to power-guzzling data centers in Northern Virginia and elsewhere.
But after approving solar panels on 965 acres of agricultural land, supervisors in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore voted in 2017 to change their zoning laws, forbidding future large-scale solar installations on agricultural land and limiting them to industrial-zoned areas. A proposed amendment to Madison County’s zoning laws would do the same.
Industrial zones are really where these massive solar projects belong.