Solar PV system
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A Prince William County project offers hope that Virginia solar developers can navigate land-use politics in the region.

Amid a solar energy growth spurt and rising anxieties over land-use and development in the state, Virginia solar companies are learning how to integrate projects with their surroundings.

A recent example in northern Virginia is proof that solar companies can navigate aesthetic and other concerns that often arise around projects, particularly in areas new to larger-scale solar projects.

Matthew Meares, principal of Richmond-based Virginia Solar, was thrilled to find relatively flat property in Prince William County near existing transmission lines and other electricity infrastructure that can deliver energy to a hub of nearby data centers and other large users hungry for renewables.

Better yet: the project was well-received by neighbors and authorities because it meshes well with the Rural Crescent, a plan the increasingly suburban county introduced in 1998 to limit development in its northern and western stretches.

The 20-megawatt project will cover 225 acres of a 331-acre farm near Nokesville and should be online by 2020. The property won’t be subdivided, and the community is soothed about welcoming a quiet, productive neighbor that won’t cause traffic jams. Nokesville is 40-plus miles from the nation’s capital.

“If we hadn’t fit in with the Rural Crescent concept, it could have been a different conversation,” Meares said.

Indeed, as solar booms in Virginia, some of those conversations have been, and could continue to be, much more contentious.

Just a few weeks after Meares received a special-use permit for his Prince William project in mid-October, neighbors a few counties to the south and west filed a lawsuit against a separate solar project. They want to halt an array that Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, parent of Florida Power & Light Co., has slated for 1,000 acres of farmland in Culpeper County.

The complaint claims the project will destroy scenic views, cause excessive glare, decrease property values and generate excessive noise and traffic during construction. The lawsuit chides the county Board of Supervisors for approving a conditional use permit, which reversed a recommendation by the planning commission.

Similar pushback has come from residents and local authorities in several rural counties reluctant to embrace a rapid energy transition that they worry will alter the character of their communities.

New report points to solutions

The Sierra Club backs Virginia’s recent solar surge. But like other conservation organizations, the club’s Virginia Chapter is also sympathetic to local government officials tasked with handling unprecedented zoning requests from solar developers.

“There is no roadmap for localities navigating these permit applications,” said Corrina Beall, the chapter’s legislative and political director. “They are making it up as they go along. We are all figuring this out together.”

A new report researched by the Environmental Law Institute recommended how Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania — all in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — could take a holistic approach to the siting, construction and operation of energy projects ranging from natural gas pipelines to solar farms.

The report was prepared for the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, composed of 50-plus organizations.

“Energy facilities present the region with both challenges and opportunities,” John Griffin, the partnership’s program manager, said when the report was released on Nov. 28. “Our partnership sees a real need for ways to improve the evaluation and permitting of energy projects so that landscape-scale conservation objectives can be achieved.”

On the renewable energy front, the report suggests that the three states could adopt legislation discouraging the location of solar facilities on prime farmland. And if such siting is approved, other nearby farmland should be preserved to offset that loss.

In tandem, the report recommended that Virginia and Maryland follow Pennsylvania’s lead by creating a model that spells out appropriate siting, design and operation parameters for solar and wind projects.

The report also notes that the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has put together a pollinator/bird habitat scorecard for solar developers to follow when installing panels.

Developers earn points for planting diverse native species in and around the panels, mowing vegetation only during the dormant season, adding bird and bee nesting boxes, and planting shrubs and trees in the buffer zone. They lose points by using insecticides or planting invasive grasses.

In addition to benefiting bees, birds and other wildlife, the measures are also geared to retain stormwater and sequester carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas contributing to climate change.

Some standards easier set than done

Meares expects siting of solar will evolve beyond farm fields and wooded lots as the state’s policies become more sophisticated.

In the meantime, he has discovered that communities where he has pitched solar projects have three main concerns: what’s the visual impact, how loud is the construction noise, and can the site be reclaimed in 25 to 35 years when the panels’ “lifespan” ends?

Usually, he responds as he has in Nokesville. Plans there call for planting a 50-foot buffer of trees, limiting construction to daylight hours and funding a bond to cover the cost of dismantling the equipment if the site is sold for a different use.

Related: As Georgia’s solar growth continues, one county puts on the brakes

Meares has six solar projects up and running in Virginia and another seven on the way. Before co-founding Virginia Solar in 2015, the 40-year-old North Carolina native crisscrossed the country working on Dominion wind and solar projects. He earned a mechanical engineering degree at North Carolina State University and a Master of Business Administration at Duke University.

He considers himself an environmentalist and is sensitive to requests from conservation-minded Virginians who want solar farms to be planted with native grasses and flowers so as to be pollinator-friendly.

“I support the idea and it sounds good,” he said. “What we’ve learned after studying this is that there are a lot of considerations. For one, it’s expensive and time-consuming.”

Developers tend to resort to fast-growing — but non-native — grasses after a site is cleared because stormwater permits require that loose soil be stabilized quickly.

Meares said he tries to plant cedars native to Virginia when building buffer zones. He also has extensively researched queries about balancing grazing and/or crops with solar farms.

“We’ve looked at every crop possible,” he said, adding that turf and sod have the best potential thus far. “We need to find an answer that works economically and scientifically.”

He sees grazing as an operations and maintenance headache because “cattle will use the panels as giant backscratchers and goats will eat the wires.”

Sheep might work out OK, he said. “Can that be done? Yes. Should it be done? Maybe.”

Often, Meares noted, the key to making a project work is listening.

“You learn what people care about by going to public hearings,” he said. “Every community cares about something different.”

In Nokesville, the passion was trails. Meares gave them permission to build and use trails for horse riders and the high school cross country team on the 106 acres of farmland he won’t be developing as part of the solar project. They abut a park.

“It was a very reasonable ask on their part and a reasonable give on our side,” he said. “It made neighbors happy and it just made good sense.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.