State bill would remove county control of solar projects

Published 2:21 am Tuesday, January 23, 2024

A bill filed in this General Assembly session would take away county control of solar projects. That goes for Buckingham County, along with Cumberland and Prince Edward. HB636, filed by District 6 Del. Richard Sullivan out of Arlington, would take approval out of the hands of local governments and give it to the State Corporation Commission. 

The bill itself says it “establishes a procedure under which an electric utility or independent power provider (applicant) is able to obtain approval for a certificate from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) for the siting of an energy facility rather than from the governing body of a locality.” 

To be clear, that would include a wide range of energy facilities, not just solar. 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. 

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If a company wants to build a wind farm in Cartersville, under this bill they could go directly to the SCC and bypass the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors. As referenced in the bill, electric utilities like Dominion would also be able to get “energy facilities” approved by the state, rather than county boards. That is, if the project meets certain conditions. 

Losing county control of solar 

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. 

This isn’t just a referral or a secondary option. To be clear, HB636 gives the projects it approves free reign. Specifically, it states that any solar farm or other energy facility approved by the SCC “is exempt from obtaining approvals or permits, including any land use approvals or permits under the regulations and ordinances of the locality.” So basically, if approved by the SCC, these projects would get to bypass the entire local planning and zoning process. 

Now the concept, Sullivan says, is set up to help Virginia meet a long-term goal. Approved by the General Assembly in 2020, the Clean Economy Act requires just under two-thirds of the state’s electricity to come from solar or wind energy by the end of 2035. 

“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.  Virginia’s progress to date in reaching the Clean Economy Act’s goals differs depending who you ask. According to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2022-released energy plan, solar accounted for only 661 megawatts, or roughly 3% of the state’s 26,069-megawatt generating capacity as of Dec. 31, 2021. A 2022 survey by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center, however, identified 51 operational utility-scale solar facilities across the state that were generating a cumulative 2,657 megawatts as of the same date.

Local, state officials oppose the idea 

That concept, losing county control of solar, isn’t exactly winning friends among both local governments and some state delegates. Take Buckingham County, for example, where county officials just rewrote their solar ordinance and have already dealt with a number of projects seeking approval over the last year. 

“The bill basically says our board can turn (a solar farm) down and they can come back and (get approved) anyway,” said Buckingham County Administrator Karl Carter. “That’s just not to the benefit of Buckingham County. Anything that takes control out of the local government’s hands, we’re against.”

The same is true in neighboring Prince Edward County, where officials are dealing with a number of solar requests. County Administrator Doug Stanley and his staff look at HB636 with concern. 

“It’s a way companies could circumvent potentially local approval through the vetting process for utility scale solar projects,” Stanley said. “I think we like that control left at the local level. I think the reality is that not every site is appropriate for solar. The special use permit process allows not only the planning commission and board, but also citizens time to engage in the process.” 

Stanley pointed out that Prince Edward to date has approved five solar projects. There’s currently a smaller sixth one going through the process, one the planning commission has already recommended for denial. If this bill becomes law, that means some residents could find a solar farm in the middle of their neighborhood, a place where it just doesn’t fit. 

“We’ve had some sites that are completely isolated and if you put a solar farm on it, nobody would notice it,” Stanley said. “But we’ve also had one with 30 houses around it, so it’s getting more scrutiny. Hopefully folks at the state level will continue to allow localities to have final say through the zoning process.” 

At least one member of the House of Delegates plans to vote against the bill, if it make it to the full House floor. District 50 Del. Tommy Wright said this was, plain and simple, a bad bill. 

“House Bill 636 is an overreach by the state government which infringes upon the powers of local government in siting solar and wind facilities and does not protect the interests of Southside Virginia,” Wright said. “This legislation is an insult to all local government officials and shows that Northern Virginia thinks they know what is best for the rest of Virginia, better than their local representatives. Therefore, I will be opposing HB636 when this bill comes before me in the Virginia House of Delegates.” 

What happens now? 

Right now, nothing happens to county control of solar projects. Currently, the bill is sitting in the House Committee for Counties, Cities and Towns. It first would go for a hearing in that committee. Then, if it passes through a vote of committee members, it would go before the full House of Delegates for consideration.