The Solar Dilemma: County leaders to fast-track policies on solar installations

By Laura Longley

Virginia is now fourth in the nation in solar power installations. Only California, Texas, and Florida rank higher. Blame the pandemic, but Loudoun County government and community leaders agree it’s past time for the County to create solar policies. 

There’s only one problem: The County is in the middle of a major review and rewrite of the 2019 Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinances.

But on April 20, at the Board of Supervisors business meeting, Vice-Chair Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) came up with a proposal—to incorporate regulations for large solar arrays into the County’s current zoning ordinance rewrite without slowing down that process. 

He also recommended that the Board direct County staff to move forward with “an interim process and policy to address solar farms inquiries from our property owners, and our businesses until such time as a zoning ordinance and other applicable ordinances can be amended.” 

Saines’ motion received the hearty approval of seven of Loudoun’s nine supervisors.

The two dissenting Supervisors—Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin) and Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), who represent rural Loudoun—said an all-County study approach wouldn’t work for western Loudoun. 

Their objections reflected their concerns for the agricultural and tourism economy that the County’s Rural Economic Development Council has spent the past 20 years creating, with the full participation of the County’s farmers. 

“I have big, serious concerns because I think this will eventually end or have serious repercussions, not just on the visibility of what we know as western Loudoun, but also on the rural economy and everything we’ve been doing and have worked so hard to achieve,” Kershner said.

“It could very well cause extreme damage to the future of western Loudoun County,” Buffington added. “Nobody is going to go to a brewery or a winery like Dirt Farm Brewery and want to see nothing but glare from solar parks.”

Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) replied, “I would think if you were concerned about solar energy showing up in some of these places in western Loudoun that you would actually want this [study] to happen because it gives you a mechanism for the County to actually take a stand on.” 

Saines said his initiative calls for an examination of the effects on property value, tax revenues, and economic effects, current and future land use and permit procedures, sight and sound, wildlife, agriculture, the protection of prime soils, and location criteria. 

The Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, which has already done yeoman’s work in those areas, applauded Saines’ solar initiative and offered help. Gem Bingol and Mitch Diamond, co-leaders of the group’s Solar Ordinance Committee, wrote to the Board, “We support the creation of a siting criteria policy document to guide staff and consultants in their zoning ordinance rewrite work and to provide a useful aid to solar firms and landowners considering large-scale solar projects for future review and approval.” They pledged to continue analyzing the wealth of information on effective solar siting, including examples from other communities in Virginia and across the country.

The LCPCC solar advisers also made two major recommendations to the Board: that large-scale solar projects continue not to be allowed in Loudoun, until the zoning ordinance rewrite is completed; and that Loudoun develop a policy statement on large-scale solar, to guide the writing of the zoning ordinance. 

Location. Location. Location.

“We can’t plop an expanse of solar panels just anywhere and expect it to be right,” Robert Whitescarver said. “Solar panels require special conditions to function at their best, and every locality planning to welcome solar panels needs to develop a strategy for optimal placement.”

Whitescarver is a farmer, retired district conservationist for the USDA, National Association of Conservation Districts Soil Health Champion, and adjunct professor of natural resources management at James Madison University. He pointed out in The Virginia Mercury that we will need utility-scale solar projects to get to 100 percent carbon free by 2050.

“Solar photovoltaic panels require a lot of space—experts say between 5 and 10 acres per megawatt they produce. The best place for solar panels is on rooftops, industrial lands, brownfields, degraded land, and marginal farmland. Clearing forests for solar panels is not a good choice, nor is the use of prime farmland,” wrote Whitescarver.

The landmark Virginia Clean Economy Act calls for the decarbonization of the state’s power grid by 2050, thus creating pressure on Loudoun farmers.

Maura Walsh-Copeland, who heads the zoning committee of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, told the Board of Supervisors that she and her husband had just received a proposal from a Boston-based solar firm eager to lease their 130 acres, now in barley, for the next 20 years. 

Leases of this kind call for long-term land rentals, with four-or-five-year rollover options at approximately $1,350 per acre yearly. The land must be cleared by the owner. The company takes all the tax credits, benefits, and electricity.

When the lease expires, the solar firm will either sign a new lease with the property owner or remove the solar array.

Time is of the essence. 

With final approval of Loudoun County’s revised zoning ordinances about a year away, the faster the County can produce a sound interim solar policy, the better. The LCPCC solar committee advises looking at other jurisdictions and how they handle solar. 

The $615 million, 6,350-acre Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center would be worth a visit. Those who know their Civil War history and anything about the battles of The Wilderness, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania Courthouse understand why this center has met with the vociferous opposition of the region’s residents and preservationists everywhere. 

Touted as the largest solar installation east of the Rockies, the Spotsylvania facility occupies land sold to Utah-based sPower mostly by area farmers. Once completed, it will yield 500 megawatts for Microsoft.

 Neighbors and nearby towns, such as Fredericksburg, will not benefit from the energy produced here. 

The outlook for Loudoun

At last count, Loudoun had 1,259 farms covering 121,932 acres. 

That land and its owners are tempting targets for solar facility developers. It’s easy for them to put a proposal in a farmer’s mailbox and have a new major solar array up and running in no time.

Loudoun could meet its own goals and those of Virginia’s Clean Economy Act with that approach. But as Supervisor Saines and the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Council observe, Loudoun would be best served by a more vigorous strategy. 

If, for example, the County were to require every sector of Loudoun’s economy to explore solar development solutions and create a portfolio of diverse facility sites—from industrial plants to data center rooftops, brownfields to marginal farm land—it might be possible to leave prime agricultural soils for their highest and best use: farming, and feeding a hungry planet.

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