by John Murawski
Wedged in the southern flank of Virginia, Charlotte County is home to some 11,500 people who live amidst rolling hills and family farms, pastures and sawmills, a historic Civil War battlefield, and four townlets tinier than many suburban subdivisions.
But this pastoral tableau will be swept up in the green revolution when construction begins here on the nation’s largest solar power facility east of the Mississippi River. The planned 800-megawatt Randolph Solar Project in Charlotte County will replace a commercial lumber farm of loblolly pines with 1.6 million photovoltaic panels covering an area equivalent to seven square miles.
State and federal officials see in solar energy the potential to counteract global warming with an infinite natural resource. With the 2020 passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the Old Dominion is among a growing number of states committed to “decarbonizing” its power grid by replacing natural-gas and coal-fired power plants with solar panels, wind turbines, and battery storage.
Federal policy is about to inject a massive funding to incentivize similar transitions nationwide. The New York Times characterized this year’s omnibus Inflation Reduction Act as the “the largest package of subsidies ever granted to the industry” – a $220 billion package of tax breaks, subsidies, and other incentives for the electric utility sector to invest in solar power, battery storage systems, and other carbon-free technologies.
The momentum behind solar energy could make sunshine the nation’s dominant source of electricity, supplying up to 45% of the nation’s electricity by mid-century, from a meager 2.8% of U.S. electricity generation now, according to a Department of Energy forecast.
But converting to solar has ancillary costs that will become more apparent as time passes. Solar energy facilities require vast stretches of land, converting farms and fields into geometric rows of indigo panels. The South Atlantic region has led the country in newly installed solar generating capacity for the past three years, according to a study from Virginia Commonwealth University, but little information is available on how these facilities are altering the landscape.
And the rapid buildout exposes a moral paradox for the climate change movement: Although done in the name of fighting global warming, some amount of deforestation will be the inevitable result of clearing land for ground-mounted solar panels. Environmental groups say they hope to steer solar farms to disturbed land and rooftops, but those options are often expensive and impractical.
“We’re going to change the character and characteristic of rural Virginia if this goes unchecked,” warned Martha Moore, senior vice president of governmental relations at the Virginia Farm Bureau. “My main concern is the long-term viability of the agriculture and forestry industry in the state of Virginia.”
Moore pointedly avoids using the euphemism solar “farm” when referring to a solar energy facility. She is concerned that replacing agriculture with sprawling solar projects will not only take out valuable land from production but also undercut local farming by reducing business for local sawmills, livestock markets, and farmers’ cooperatives.
This year the American Farmland Trust said that expanding solar power could gobble up as much as 3,900 square miles nationwide, and predicted that many Eastern states could lose between 1.5% and 6% of their undeveloped land to solar facilities – mostly on farmland that’s flat, cleared, and near to existing transmission infrastructure. A Princeton University study this year forecast that achieving a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050 could directly impact a cumulative land area the size of Virginia, with forested lands the most directly impacted by solar deployment in Eastern states.
The environmental groups that have launched waves of lawsuits and press releases to fight oil and gas pipelines, natural gas fracking activity, and power plant ozone violations have largely been absent on this issue.
Instead, solar land conversions have triggered local resistance and lawsuits in Charlotte County and other communities in an attempt to stall or block the projects. Local governments in nearly every state have enacted restrictions, moratoriums, or bans on renewable energy facilities, according to a 2021 study by Columbia University Law School. A study this year on opposition to renewable energy said the most common concern is environmental impacts, including harm to wildlife. As an example, the researchers cited the denial of a state permit to a proposed solar farm in Maryland that would have required clearing trees in an area over 200 acres, or 1/3 square mile.
Virginia will likely require 200 to 250 square miles of land for solar development, based on projections by the state’s two utilities, to add more than 16,000 megawatts of solar power. While that’s not a huge amount of real estate for a state of nearly 43,000 square miles, solar development is often clustered in areas where land is available and farmers are eager to trade up from harvesting soybeans to sunbeams.
John “J.A.” Devin, whose family holdings and relatives will lease land for the Randolph Solar Project, said he could lease for $35 to $40 per acre to a farmer growing soybeans, or as much as $100 per acre to a farmer growing corn. Instead, the Devins are opting to go with solar developers who pay landowners between $800 and $1,000 per acre, with a 2% annual escalator.
“You can’t argue with economics – it’s just so much more money,” Devin said. “I told my brother: We’ll put solar panels on this land, and we’ll take that money and turn around and buy some more land. We’ll take advantage of this solar while we can.”
Charlotte County Administrator Daniel Witt said the Randolph Solar Project will be a windfall to the county. It will generate $310 million over 35 years in property taxes and revenue sharing agreements that could be used to pay for such services and amenities as public parks and trails, public school renovations, and rescue squad funding. “It’s generational,” Witt said.
Dominion Energy, the Richmond-based electric utility company that owns the Randolph Solar Project, has nearly 33 square miles under option to lease or buy from local property owners, representing 7% of Charlotte County’s land mass. In its final configuration the Randolph Solar Project is expected to take up seven square miles.
When completed, the Randolph Solar Project will be screened by trees and foliage, but in the interim the facility will take an estimated five years to build, with up to 350 workers on site at peak production receiving up to 90 vehicle deliveries a day. Construction crews will use 13 existing access points and add over 40 more to accommodate trucks and other vehicles, according to a county staff analysis. While President Biden has envisioned millions of clean-energy related jobs, the Randolph Solar Project offers a cautionary data point. When completed, it is expected to generate electricity for 35 to 50 years, but will produce just 10 permanent jobs to monitor and maintain the facility.
Until recently, solar farms on the East Coast had been relatively unobtrusive, first maxing out at a 1 megawatt then scaling up to 5 megawatts. The most hospitable habitats for gargantuan projects were sun-drenched Southwestern deserts and the territorial expanses of India and China. But with the solar panel costs plummeting to the point that sunshine is now described as the nation’s cheapest source of electricity, and the promise of large-scale battery backup as a feasible means of managing solar power, solar has pressed ahead as the leading technology to replace greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.
Solar farms are touted as supplying electricity to thousands of residential homes – for example: Randolph Solar’s 800 megawatts will generate enough electricity to power 200,000 residential homes. But the reality is that solar panels generate electricity at peak capacity only about 20% of the time, and those homes will have to get their juice from other sources – offshore wind, legacy nuclear, battery storage or natural gas – the rest of the time when it’s overcast, twilight, or nighttime.
Room to Spare?
Across the country, solar energy is pushing unprecedented boundaries: A 1,310-megawatt solar farm, dubbed Samson Solar, is rising across three counties in northeast Texas. A 1,600 megawatt project, called Mammoth Solar, is under development on 20 square miles of farmland in Indiana. And a 2,700 megawatt project, called Westlands Solar Park, under development on about 31 square miles of contaminated and depleted farmland in California’s San Joaquin Valley, will be the biggest solar energy complex in the world, for now.
In Virginia, dozens of solar projects are in various stages of proposal and development, with three more large projects in the pipeline in Charlotte County alone, bearing such idyllic names as Moody Creek and Tall Pines, totaling a maximum peak output of 537 megawatts and covering more than seven square miles. Dominion Energy is also developing a 600-megawatt Bellflower Solar project in nearby Brunswick County, with more than 12 square miles under option for the project that will take up four square miles.
Neighboring Halifax County has permitted 17 solar farms totaling nearly 700 megawatts covering about 13 square miles. County Administrator Scott Simpson estimated that the county could accommodate as much as 20 square miles of solar farms before it ran out of available land and electric grid capacity needed to assemble these projects.
Solar advocates say there’s plenty of spare land to accommodate solar panel arrays. According to the Biden administration’s Department of Energy, solar energy could supply 45% of the electricity needed to decarbonize the national power grid by taking up just 0.5% of the contiguous U.S. surface area, largely on marginal or disturbed land surfaces, “thus avoiding conflicts with high-value lands in current use.”
The Nature Conservancy, dedicated to the preservation of natural habitats, determined in a recent analysis that North Carolina could build about 220 square miles of solar farms with minimal land impacts to natural communities and biodiversity. The organization has mapped the state to highlight the areas of most value to biodiversity and least suitable for development.
However, the Nature Conservancy’s recommended areas for solar development, in and around metropolitan areas, are the least feasible economically because of residential development, commercial use and higher land values, said Steve Levitas, senior vice president for regulatory and governmental affairs at Pine Gate Renewables, a solar developer based in Asheville.
The Nature Conservancy’s environmentally sensitive sections also appear to conflict with the prime areas for solar development as designated by Duke Energy for meeting North Carolina’s carbon neutrality targets by 2050. North Carolina adopted its zero-carbon targets last year, more than a year after Virginia, and N.C. state regulators are set to approve the details by Dec. 31.
North Carolina’s carbon-neutrality mandate is relatively recent so that conflicts over land use are not yet part of the public discussion, but Duke Energy is projecting it will add between 22,200 and 24,000 megawatts of solar power by 2050, which could require more than 250 square miles of solar farms.
Charlotte-based Duke Energy envisions that solar farm development will be concentrated in the same section of the state that The Nature Conservancy has marked as least suitable for solar development.
Neither Duke Energy nor the Nature Conservancy responded to questions about the apparent land conflicts in their land analyses. Much of eastern North Carolina is agricultural and key to maintaining North Carolina’s role as one of the nation’s top producers of sweet potatoes, hogs, and poultry.
North Carolina was the first state in the Southeast to require electric utilities to use renewable energy, and today is fourth in the nation in total solar capacity, with about 7,500 megawatts installed, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. Utility-scale solar farms already take up almost 60 square miles of land, and some solar farms let sheep graze between the rows of panels.
Levitas said that increasing conflicts over land use are inevitable but they are manageable with responsible siting of solar farms. “There is absolutely no greater threat to biodiversity in America and the world than climate change,” he said. “Full stop.”
Duke Energy’s strategy for achieving carbon-neutrality, per North Carolina’s 2021 legislative mandate, includes a full menu of options: solar energy, offshore wind, battery storage, modular nuclear reactors, and green hydrogen – a top-to-bottom energy transition expected to cost more than $100 billion. The hydrogen option, dubbed by the company as a future “breakthrough technology,” is not yet commercially feasible and would involve the conversion of natural gas combustion units to hydrogen energy.
Wind and solar, backed by battery storage, are the energy technologies with the greatest certainty at this point. Battery systems are quickly advancing in storage capacity: A 409-megawatt battery system is operating in Florida and two 600-megawatt systems are in the pipeline, according to a federal database.
If utility-scale hydrogen and modular nuclear reactors were to prove unfeasible, Duke Energy could theoretically deploy between 60,000 and 70,000 megawatts of solar power, according to a study commissioned by the power company from the federally funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That amount of solar energy could require more than 750 square miles of dirt.
Dominion Energy estimates it will use less than 1.5% of Virginia’s prime farm and forest land to meet its solar ambitions. The Randolph Solar Project, which still requires state regulatory approval, is spread out over 44 subsections assembled like a giant puzzle. As a sweetener to some 150 property owners who leased their land but may not end up in the final contour of the project, the developer has allocated $3 million to pay those landowners a thank-you fee.
‘Those Damn Solar People’
Skeptical residents like Rodney Moon, owner of a used-car and salvage lot, say the $3 million is corporate hush money to pay off residents so they don’t fight the project. Moon, 54, said he and his 76-year-old father had a falling out after his father optioned off 70 acres of family farmland that Moon said had been promised to him. “Those damn solar people destroyed my life,” Moon said.
This year the Charlotte County staff advised against approving the Randolph Solar Project, but the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors signed off on it. The county limits solar farms to 3% of the surrounding area within a five-mile radius. Randolph Solar was exempted and will be allowed to triple the county’s density rule, occupying 9.1% of the area; the 220-megawatt Tall Pines solar farm was permitted at 4.95% density.
The Randolph Solar Project has triggered lawsuits, one alleging that the project developer induced an 83-year-old woman with dementia to sign a five-year option on 96.76 acres of land. That suit was dismissed earlier this year.
Devin predicted that his neighbors will eventually make peace with solar panels the way people got used to cellphone towers, which were also once considered eyesores.
“It’s not up to me to provide my neighbors with a viewshed,” Devin said. “It’s unfortunate that people come in and buy a small plot and then tell everybody else what they can’t do with their land.”
Its champions say that solar energy has the advantage of being reversible, in that the land could revert to agriculture and the solar panels and mounting racks removed if other energy options replace solar in the future. However, that claim is contested by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in a December report stating that “once altered,” Virginia’s prime agricultural soils and forest lands “cannot be restored” to prime productivity.
Growing environmental concerns have prompted Virginia officials this year to tighten their rules governing solar farm development. The state Department of Environmental Quality declared in March that solar farms will be considered to be “impervious areas” for the purposes of controlling stormwater runoff and erosion. That means that future solar farms might have to reconfigure their designs or add stormwater retention ponds, cutting into their profit margins.
Also this year, Virginia lawmakers added a requirement for solar farms to incorporate “mitigation plans” to offset land disturbances if the project takes up more than 10 acres of prime agricultural soil or more than 50 acres of contiguous forested land. Environmental groups applauded the new requirement, and an advisory committee will issue proposed regulations by the end of next year, but in an indication of the complexity of this topic, the advisory group so far “has failed to reach consensus on any major issue,” according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s 717-page report issued in December.
The requirement is based on the established practice of wetlands mitigation – which prioritizes avoidance, then minimization and, as a last resort, compensation – but there is no accepted or obvious way to mitigate for the removal of a farm or forest, said Nikki Rovner, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy in Virginia.
“It’s all about tradeoffs,” she said. “It’s important to understand that we are not trying prevent solar development on every single farm, nor are we saying you can’t cut a tree down.”
Judy Dunscomb, a senior conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Virginia, said that solar development is manageable in theory but has proven tricky in practice.
“On paper it’s solvable – that’s why we have study after study after study saying we can do that,” she said. “But when you come down to where developers are actually going, the real world doesn’t behave the way the analysis does on paper.”
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John Murawski reports on the intersection of culture and ideas for RealClearInvestigations. He previously covered artificial intelligence for the Wall Street Journal and spent 15 years as a reporter for the News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) writing about health care, energy and business. At RealClear, Murawski reports on how esoteric academic theories on race and gender have been shaping many areas of public life, from K-12 school curricula to workplace policies to the practice of medicine.