The interest in developing solar energy has increased dramatically across Virginia over the last few years. There are several questions a locality must address to full prepare for this emerging land use. Likewise, solar developers and other non-governmental stakeholders may not be fully aware of community planning policies and procedures, their intention, or the legal authorities and responsibilities embedded in the Code of Virginia. I'll try to point out a few key issues here but mostly, I want to draw your attention to a few resources I've developed to help localities respond to this emerging land use.
I first started thinking about the intersection of solar energy and land use issues in the summer of 2016, when a locality contacted LUEP asking for technical guidance. At the time, the best contacts were state agency representatives from Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) and Virginia's Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME). These folks continue to be key points of contact. The information available on the VDEQ web site is helpful. The Code of Virginia provides the framework for how the work of the agencies regulate solar energy development. That was about it though. Only one utility-scale solar project had been approved in Virginia and it wasn't fully online yet. So, there wasn't much advice to give on planning and zoning for solar development. There just weren't many experiences to draw upon.
At the time this article is being drafted, 65 Notices of Intent are listed on VDEQ's website (projects greater than 10 acres and 5 megawatts in size, seeking approval for construction). While those numbers are interesting, they don't reflect a full accounting of solar project development in Virginia. The 60+ projects that sprang up over the past year represent only those project seeking regulatory approval through what's known as the Permit By Rule (PBR) process, and "large-scale" projects as defined by the Code of Virginia (i.e. projects over 150MW in designed generating capacity). A full accounting of solar development falls to the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority (VSEDA), created under 2015 legislation.
The Virginia General Assembly created the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority (“VSEDA” or “the Authority”) for the purposes of facilitating, coordinating, and supporting the solar energy industry and solar energy projects in Virginia. The Authority is composed of 11 non-legislative citizen members. The VSEDA is currently drafting a workplan outlining both legislative and non-legislative priorities A report issued by the VSEDA in November of 2016 suggested "distributed solar generation (net metered) grew from approximately 1,900 installations totaling 13.8 megawatts at the beginning of 2015, to 3,200 installations totaling 27.3 megawatts at the end of September of 2016." While the overall contribution of solar power to Virginia's energy portfolio is small, solar power production is growing rapidly. All renewable sources, including wind and hydroelectric power, account for around 6% of Virginia's power generating capacity according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
By all accounts, solar is just getting started. More legislative changes are expected, further encouraging solar project development. Other groups such as the Solar Policy Collaborative Workgroup (aka “The Rubin Group”), are working independently from the VSEDA. In 2016, the Rubin Group successfully advanced three pieces of legislation through the Virginia General Assembly. Areas of policy resistance remain. Distributed solar projects, in their many forms, are a current topic of policy discussions, and may yield policy changes in the coming years. Such changes may have implications for how localities incorporate solar into their land use plans and ordinances.
The 60+ projects that have filed a Notice of Intent (NOI) with VDEQ occur in more than 40 different localities (towns, cities, and counties). In a planning and zoning sense, there have been a variety of reactions to these proposals. Some localities are using a Conditional Use permitting process. Others are opting to use a by-right use process. Still others have not published any changes to their zoning and subdivision ordinances online yet. I have been in contact with a few localities that are still working out ordinance amendments. At least two counties have mentioned that the original text amendments made to their zoning may need to be revisited because of lessons learned after a solar project's approval. As communities wrestle with this new land use, we thought it would be helpful to provide some resources to aid the discussions. In putting these together, a number of questions have come to mind. I'd love to hear from you.
Resources for Exploring Land Use and Solar Policy
1) LUEP's Community of Practice (CoP) is a listserv style discussion. Posts can be made by email or via the web-based interface. We've had a few posts about solar energy over the last few months. Please use and share this service. I think it will help surface issues important to improving solar energy policy in the state. Many lessons have been learned over the last year. Consider lending your thoughts to the conversation. 2) A new Document Library has been established to help access and assess approaches to ordinance changes to accommodate solar as a land use. Please consider adding your jurisdiction to the library, so others can benefit from your thinking. Planning Commissioners, interested citizens, and elected officials are the "front line" workers on many critical issues related to balancing the tradeoffs induced by solar projects. State policy is, in many ways, recommendatory in nature, leaving local governments to negotiate conditions for rezoning approvals. 3) LUEP related presentations on solar policy, recorded over the last year. You can watch videos online and even download handouts in our new Session Archive.
Join the conversation on LUEP's CoP
- There seems to be some confusion about how to regulate solar installations. There are a number of factors to consider, including: whether the system will be roof mounted or ground mounted, the extent of land area involved, and the power output of the project and necessary grid interconnection. In addition, who operates the project can make a difference. For example, the Code of Virginia defines solar projects in terms of "small" and "large" scale, but localities have different terms for siting and permitting processes that don't match the state definitions. Likewise, model ordinances available through VDEQ provide little justification for regulating solar at different scales. How does your locality deal with these definitional issues?
- Does your locality provide incentives for solar or other "green" development? Programs such as C-PACE can help businesses and homeowners make the shift to renewable energy and invest in energy efficiency programs. Furthermore, have you defined your visions for solar in your community through a Community Energy Planning process or comprehensive plan revision?
- What are the potential tax tradeoffs between solar development and other land protection programs (land use taxation, ag. and forestal districts)? Do you understand the implications of solar development on education funding (calculation of your Local Composite Index)? How about the tax exemption of solar equipment (machine and tool tax exemption)?
- What can local governments (or LUEP) do to help solar thrive in Virginia? Do solar developers understand and seem comfortable with the expectations of local planning?
- How are you balancing the desire to approve solar projects with your concerns about environmental issues (invasive plants and opportunities for pollinator species, erosion and sediment control plan inspections)?
- If you have zoning in place to support solar development, how has it been working out? Are the challenges and benefits turning out as expected? How are landowners holding leases within a solar project reacting?