County officials focus on potential negative impact of solar farms

By Heather Michon

In a joint session on Wednesday night (Jan. 3), the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission heard a presentation on the potential negative impacts of utility-scale solar power.

The presentation was led by Jason Sweeney, a local attorney who established a nonprofit called “Citizen Defenders of Fluvanna County” last November.    

In his opening remarks, Sweeney urged the supervisors and commissioners to make a plan to deal with “the coming onslaught of solar projects” likely to hit the county in the near future.

Several factors have driven the exponential growth of solar power in Virginia in recent years, but Sweeney said the biggest one by far is the development of computer data centers, primarily in Northern Virginia. 

According to a group called Data Center Frontier, by late 2023 there were over 250 data centers in the state. In total, these centers require 2,767 megawatts of power to run. (To put that in perspective, 1 megawatt is enough energy to power 250 homes.) Annual power consumption is expected to grow as new data centers are developed.

This need for increased capacity has run headlong into the global movement to reduce reliance on fossil fuels in favor of renewables. 

The Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020 has set the goal of transitioning the state’s power grid to 100 percent renewables by 2050. Both the VCEA and the federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 offer major incentives to develop large-scale projects in wind, solar, and other forms of clean energy.

Sweeney believes that 2024 will see a major surge in solar projects as developers try to get permits in place before new environmental regulations kick in on Jan. 1, 2025. These regulations will set strict guidelines on stormwater management that will be costly for companies to implement.

“So it’s important that we think right now about what the strategy is going to be for approving this glut of projects that’s going to be coming on,” he said.

Supporting his arguments was Scott Cameron, a vice president of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (VASWCD).

Cameron said his group had made it a policy in 2022 to call on the Virginia legislature to remove VCEA incentives to convert forests and prime agricultural land to solar and instead promote the use of “brownfields” like defunct industrial sites and decommissioned coal fields.

While VASWCD “respects the rights of landowners” to sell their property to solar developers consistent with local regulations, they believe the state shouldn’t incentivize it.

Cameron was followed by Winfred Nash, former president of the Lynchburg-based BWXT Nuclear Operations Group.

Nash gave a presentation on the composition of solar panels, which contain potentially toxic materials. He ran through a long list of disasters that could befall solar farms, including fires, hailstorms, and hurricanes, that could potentially lead to toxins being released into the air or soil.

As commissioners and supervisors questioned the presenters, it became clear that one of the problems with making decisions around solar farms is that they haven’t been around in Virginia long enough to know if they were harmful or not.

For example, Commissioner Barry Bibb questioned the impact of letting agricultural land essentially lay fallow as a solar farm for 30 or more years. Could that not actually restore the soil and be converted back into productive land once the solar was decommissioned? 

Cameron said there wasn’t enough data to say what would happen over the long term. 

Fluvanna County defines utility-scale solar as any project producing over two megawatts of power. 

With the exception of CVEC’s 5-megawatt Palmer Solar Center in Troy, which went into operation in 2018, there has not been a major push toward utility-scale projects in Fluvanna to date. 

Two major projects are currently moving through the permitting pipeline: Richmond-based CEP Solar is planning a 38-megawatt farm near Fork Union, and Pine Tree Renewables of North Carolina has proposed a 16-megawatt facility off Bremo Road.  

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