Solar companies eye county

Published 6:57 am Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Interest from solar developers has increased throughout Cumberland since supervisors amended county code back in October to allow utility-scale solar facilities in certain zoning districts subject to obtaining a conditional use permit.

This attention is reflective across the area, with much of rural Virginia receiving the same interest for solar farm construction.

In 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which sets a schedule for closing old fossil fuel power plants and requires the commonwealth’s electricity to come from 100% renewable sources such as solar or wind.

Email newsletter signup

Under the act, Dominion Energy Virginia is required to be 100% carbon-free by 2045, and Appalachian Power must be 100% carbon-free by 2050.

With the state’s eye on renewable energy, these new business opportunities for rural counties appear promising, but they also seem to come with a fair share of growing pains.

Last fall, the Cumberland Board of Supervisors voted to allow utility-scale solar facilities in the A-2, R-3 and M-2 zoning districts. Tuesday, March 9, the board revised some language of the ordinance and removed R-3 from the list of allowable zones.

During the public hearing to revise the ordinance, County Administrator Don Unmussig said following October’s meeting the county attracted a large amount of interest from the solar community.

“As that was going on and is still ongoing, several things were coming to light over our ordinance,” he said.

The main issue found in the revised ordinance was the allowance of solar farms in R-3 districts. Unmussig said R-3 residential zones should have never been approved for utility-scale solar farm use, adding he believed the only R-3 district in the county is the village area of Cartersville.

Monday, March 15, Unmussig said the county and its landowners had received a fairly high volume of calls from solar developers requesting information. He said this appears to be true of other nearby counties as well.

According to Unmussig, several solar developers have already entered into option leases with some Cumberland County landowners to begin the process to apply for Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) for solar farms.

Recently, a March 22 public hearing of the Cumberland County Planning Commission was advertised in The Farmville Herald for a CUP request for a utility-scale solar energy facility on Vogel Road.

Unmussig said the application was recently withdrawn. He added the applicants did not provide a reason for pulling out.

He also stated this would have been the first operating solar farm in the county, as there are currently no active solar operations in Cumberland.

On Monday, Unmussig stated the region has experienced increased interest from solar developers due to its extensive open lands.

While solar farms certainly have their benefits, officials are concerned things are moving too quickly.

“We are concerned about how rapid this process is moving, and are focused on ensuring our citizen landowners are completely aware of what they are getting into with these developers,” Unmussig said Monday.

“I am concerned this may move too fast,” he added, “and some key protection for our landowners and the county as a whole may get overlooked. With solar evolving this fast in our region, we have to look at what is going on here in Cumberland and with our neighboring counties on a daily and weekly basis.”

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Unmussig mentioned solar farms are also a hot topic at the state level. It is likely future legislation and guidance from the state will mean more language will have to be added to the ordinance.

“We are developing language for our next code amendment,” he said, “and it will be related to decommissioning requirements. I am sure there will be other additions as well.”