Industrial-Scale Solar Comes to Virginia

If you’re curious what an industrial-scale solar farm will look like, check out Sustainable Power Group LLC’s proposed 3,500-acre solar facility in Spotsylvania County. The Utah company wants to build a 500-megawatt electric power generating station that would entail building approximately 1 million solar panels.

Writes the Free Lance-Star:

The proposed facility would produce enough energy to power all of Spotsylvania’s nearly 46,000 homes nearly twice over, but the company plans to sell the power to corporations throughout Virginia and possibly other states. Microsoft Corp. has said it plans to buy more than half of the energy produced by the solar farm to power its data centers in Virginia.

Think about it: 3,500 acres is more than five square miles. That’s a lot of land. Virginia, by way of reference, is 42,775 square miles. Let’s say the solar farms can supply electricity to 90,000 homes (at peak sunlight). It would take nearly 500 square miles of solar panels to supply all the homes in the state — and considerably more to supply all the businesses. We could be talking about solar panels covering 1% of Virginia’s land mass. This is a major land use issue.

In the early stage of Virginia’s solar development, developers are cherry-picking the prime sites — land located near existing transmission lines that spares the necessity of building power lines to tie into the grid. Rural residents seem to be highly ambivalent about solar farms as it is. Just imagine what will happen if all the good sites are taken and developers have to begin building transmission spurs to connect to the grid. Not only would that add a significant cost, it would require running the regulatory gamut. Inevitably, landowners would complain, especially if the solar developers resorted to eminent domain to cross their property. Opponents would draw upon the array of legal, regulatory and P.R. innovations pioneered to thwart projects initiated by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Under such conditions, would independent solar developers have the financial staying power to slog through those battles?

Perhaps the question is academic. Solar will not likely exceed 25% of Dominion’s electric power generation over the next couple of decades. I have no idea if developers will run out of suitable sites for solar farms by then. But who knows? If the Sustainable Power Group is talking about selling green power into the PJM grid, and if other developers follow its lead, perhaps the market for solar is bigger than what it would take to supply Virginia residents alone. The day the Old Dominion runs out of easily cherry-picked sites might come sooner than we think. Once solar reaches critical mass, it could well create a new set of conflicts and controversies.