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Promoting Responsible Utility-Scale Solar Development in Virginia’s Rural Communities
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By: Kaitlin Savage

Utility-scale solar development relies heavily on timely and efficient land use and zoning approvals. As solar gains traction in Virginia, many counties have begun drafting zoning ordinances and comprehensive plan amendments to address large-scale renewable energy development within their respective jurisdictions. The evolving nature of local regulatory environments pose a challenge to project developers in the solar industry both in the Commonwealth and across the U.S., particularly in rural communities where utility-scale solar facilities tend to be sited.

While those directly involved in renewable energy project development may sometimes be eager to label an absence of community support as a “Not In My Backyard” phenomenon, the reality of local opposition to utility-scale solar and wind development is often more complex. The Berkeley Lab recently released a 4-year survey regarding local perceptions of U.S. wind-power sites, including an analysis of the relationship between project planning processes and community acceptance of local wind turbines. Though effective planning processes vary by locality, the Berkeley Lab survey suggests that meaningful engagement and transparency foster positive local attitudes towards renewable energy.

Successful engagement on a county-level is not a “one-size-fits all” approach. Instead, it requires consideration of a broad range of strategies, all of which should reflect a deep understanding and respect of local community values, potential concerns of adjacent landowners, and views of other stakeholders. In 2018, the vast majority of local governments in Virginia continue to view utility-scale solar as a new and unfamiliar form of development with a notable footprint on land use. This novelty tends to create additional scrutiny and potential for heightened review at the local level. As an example, sPower recently proposed a 6,500 acre (10.16 square miles) utility-scale solar site in Spotsylvania County, where the project has gained considerable attention among local stakeholders and larger organizations such as the Virginia Association of Counties.

With recognition of this widespread learning gap, companies may benefit from undertaking an early-stage assessment of local outreach and education needs. As described by the Berkeley Lab study, investment in proactive engagement strategies helps to avoid the spread of misinformation on renewable energy, and subsequent pitfalls associated with local permit denials, or significantly delayed permit approvals.

Land use permits in Virginia typically involve formal public hearings in addition to public meeting and comment periods required by the VA Department of Environmental Quality Renewable Energy Permit-By-Rule regulations. These formal processes provide important opportunities for direct community engagement; however, developers may also wish to consider more proactive forms of education and outreach, such as pre-application meetings with county planning staff, who are likely able to provide valuable perspectives regarding potential siting concerns.

While considerable time and energy is spent focused on federal and state policy, local support remains a critical factor in accomplishing widespread renewable energy deployment in Virginia and across the U.S. Those working directly on these issues should continue to push for transparency, outreach and education — and most importantly, the development of projects that provide meaningful benefits to rural communities.

Kaitlin Savage consults on utility-scale solar development in Virginia and across PJM territory. She Currently serves as Director of Public Engagement at the Solar Research Institute, and previously served as a member of Governor-Elect Ralph Northam’s Policy Council on Natural Resources.

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