No more permits? Bill would let solar projects bypass local rules

Published 7:59 am Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Should solar projects be allowed to ignore local rules? The Virginia House committee was a bit concerned on Friday when they went through the full bill. To be clear, after hearing the latest addition, they decided it was time for someone else to make decisions regarding HB636. By a unanimous vote, the Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns washed their hands of it, sending the solar bill to the Committee on Labor and Commerce. 

Before we get into the details of the latest addition to the bill, let’s explain what it’s about. HB636, affectionately known as “the solar takeover” bill by some, would do just that. If a city or county board decides to reject a company’s solar project, this bill would let the state overrule that decision. The company behind the project would be able to go to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) and get approval to build anyway, regardless of what planning boards and boards of supervisors say. 

The newest addition   

And then there’s the newest addition to the bill. You’ll find it in the latest version of the bill, uploaded to the General Assembly’s website. We’re going to quote this word for word. It says that “the bill provides that an applicant who is issued a certificate by the Commission for an energy facility is exempt from obtaining approvals or permits, including any land use approvals or permits under the regulations and ordinances of the locality.” 

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So basically, once a company runs to the SCC and gets approval, they would not have to get any approvals or permits from the city or county in question. That’s again if this bill makes it through the House and Senate. 

It’s also worth pointing out while it’s labeled a solar bill, it includes more than that. The bill states it would apply to any solar facility with a capacity of 50 megawatts or more, any wind facility with a capacity of 100 megawatts or more. It also covers any type of “energy storage facility”  with a “nameplate capacity of 50 megawatts or more and an energy discharge capacity of 200 megawatt hours or more.” And in case you’re wondering what nameplate capacity is, it’s the project’s output under ideal conditions. So for a solar farm, this is how much energy it produces with a high sun on a clear summer day. 

A change to help solar projects 

As to why someone would create a bill like this, you can ask Del. Robert Sullivan from Arlington. His argument is that the General Assembly passed the Clean Economy Act in 2020. That is 100% correct. That law requires that just under two-thirds of the state’s electricity come from solar or wind energy by the end of 2035. Despite having more than a decade before that deadline pops up, Sullivan feels the state needs to force communities to approve these projects, even if they don’t want to. 

“We need to find some way to implement this statewide policy and goal that we’ve set for ourselves,” Sullivan told our sister paper The Smithfield Times in a Jan. 16 phone interview.  Under the bill, there are three reasons a solar, wind or other independent company would bypass local officials. First, they qualify if the county, town or city board fails to “timely approve or deny an application”.

Second, it qualifies if the application “complies with certain requirements for Commission approval, but a host locality denies the application.” And third, the project would qualify to bypass county authorities if local officials amend the ordinances and put in more restrictions after the company has met all previous requirements. In any of these situations, under this bill, the SCC would be allowed to consider it. 

What happens next? 

On Monday, the Virginia House Committee on Labor and Commerce acknowledged the solar projects bill had been sent over. It’s now been assigned to the group’s #3 subcommittee, which meets every Tuesday. All it takes is one majority vote to pass out committee, at which point it would then go to the full House for a vote.