Solar farms and land use concerns

By Ben Delman on December 1, 2016

Solar is being installed at a record pace across Virginia. While residential-scale solar has traditionally dominated the Virginia market – fueled by Virginia’s strong community of solar homeowners – utility-scale solar farms are starting to pop up across the state. And while rooftop solar needs only a roof and a racking system to be installed, these large-scale solar farms require something much greater: land.

As a result of new solar farm development, Virginia communities are weighing the pros and cons of dedicating their land to solar. In some cases, communities are divided between those who support large-scale solar projects and those who oppose using this land for solar. With dozens of utility-scale solar projects currently in development, the debate over land vs. solar is  intensifying. So which is it? Are large-scale solar farms a gross misuse of local lands and resources, or an unparalleled opportunity for local development?

To tackle that question, let’s take a look at the newly proposed SunTec Solar Farm in Accomack County on Eastern Shore, where the land vs. solar divide is playing out in real time.

Earlier this fall, the Eastern Shore of Virginia welcomed its first solar farm: the 80 MW Amazon Solar Farm in Accomack County. Now, construction of the county’s second commercial-scale solar farm is underway. Interested in leasing some of his agricultural land for a solar farm, local farmer John Van Kesteren recently announced his family’s plans to host and develop a 20 MW solar project. The proposed project will be developed by SunTec LLC. This is a commercial company created by Van Kesteren’s son-in-law to oversee development. The panels will be sited on 200 acres of Van Keseteren’s farmland.

Despite the support of neighbors and family members, the project was met with skepticism when first proposed to the Accomack County Planning Commission. Having recently approved the 1,000 acre Amazon Solar Farm, county officials were worried about the prospect of “losing” even more farmland to solar. Just weeks after the SunTec solar farm was first proposed, the Accomack County Board of Supervisors voted to request an ordinance amendment to remove utility-scale solar farms from agricultural zoning. If approved, the amendment would bar solar farms from agricultural land, undermining projects like the Van Kesteren’s.

Communities have expressed skepticism about these larger solar farms for many reasons. Like many Virginia communities, Accomack County is a heavily agricultural. Agriculture is the primary land in Accomack County and a critical source of county income. To remove agriculturally-zoned lands from production for purposes of solar farm development worries some county officials. Furthermore, Virginia’s tax policy exempts solar projects from personal property taxes. For many local government officials, the prospect of “losing farmland” to utility-scale solar projects, and the accompanying loss of personal property tax revenue, is too much to bear.

The design of the SunTec Accomack Solar Farm looks to change the perception that land is “stolen for solar” and demonstrate the wealth of opportunities for local economic development with larger solar farms. In doing so, projects like SunTec suggest that solar plus agriculture can be a “happy marriage”.

Not all solar farm land is covered by solar panels

The majority of land on solar farms is not covered by panels. On average, only 40% of their surface area is covered by solar panels. Only 5% of total solar farm acreage is directly disturbed by solar equipment installation. In the case of the 200-acre SunTec Accomack project, proposed development is limited to 174 acres, only 30% of which would be occupied by solar panels. Land lease agreements for utility-scale solar farms often include a decommissioning agreement. This ensures that land will be returned to its pre-existing conditions once the solar farm reaches the end of its lifetime. By doing so, decommissioning agreements protect the value and productivity of the leased land for future agricultural use. Together, these realities of land use for utility scale solar farms suggest that the agricultural value of land can be protected, not lost, through large-scale solar projects.

Utility-scale solar farms can support mixed-use land practices

Land leased to a utility-scale solar farm does not have to sit unutilized for the lifetime of the system. In many cases, solar farms can deploy deliberate and creative “co-location” land practices. These practices can actively maintain the agricultural productivity of the land. The most common of these is solar livestock grazing. This practice allows local farmers to graze their animals on the land underneath and surrounding the solar panels. Solar livestock grazing is a win-win-win for agriculturalists, local herdsmen, and the solar project developer: the ecological integrity of the land is protected by the naturally-grazing livestock (enhancing its value for future agricultural projects); the herdsman is paid the project developer for his grazing services; and the project developer receives land maintenance services that pose little risk to his solar panels. By contrast, an industrial lawn mower may damage the panels by launching flying debris. A flock of grazing sheep poses no such risk.

The proposed SunTec Accomack solar farm includes a sheep grazing partnership with Shooting Point Oyster Company. SunTec has indicated that they will work with Shooting Point to graze a flock of Hog Island sheep below their solar panels. While SunTec will benefit from the flock’s low-risk, natural grazing services, Shooting Point will receive protected grazing land and will collect wool for later resale.

Utility-scale solar farms can increase local tax revenue

Some Virginia officials fear that solar farms constitute a loss in tax revenue, given that solar is exempt from personal property taxes. However, it’s important to note that this potential reduction in personal property taxes can be offset by a larger increase in real property taxes paid by solar farms. In Virginia, productive farmland is taxed at a lower rate than its market value. It is common for electricity generation projects to be re-zoned as commercial or industrial use. This means the land will be taxed at a higher rate than if it sat as agriculturally-zoned. So, the solar developer must pay real estate taxes at the full market value, as well as rollback taxes on their leased land for the past five years. Solar farms can constitute a way for local governments to actually boost their tax revenue from an existing land parcel.

As utility-scale solar farms develop across the state, questions of land use will arise alongside them. We encourage an open dialogue on how best to balance land concerns with solar project development. As projects like the proposed SunTec Accomack solar farm demonstrate, however, these projects need not arbitrarily divide Virginians along solar vs. conservation lines. In many cases, positioning land advocates against solar developers and supporters is unnecessary, and may actually impede the development of a utility-scale solar landscape that works for all Virginians. All sides of the debate can win if we work together to protect landowners’ rights, incorporate local input in project development, and consider creative, mixed-use land practices.

Update as of 12/20/2016:  On December 14, the Accomack County Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend conditional use permits for the SunTec solar farm. The Accomack County Board of Supervisors will convene a public hearing in January, after which it will hold a final vote on the solar project.

As the SunTec solar project garners more attention in Accomack, the county government is giving much thought as to how to handle future permitting for utility-scale solar farms. Will utility-scale solar be permitted on agricultural lands? How close to towns will they be permitted? After their December 14 meeting, members of the Accomack Planning Commission suggested the idea of a “floating” zoning district for utility-scale solar projects. This policy would allow for more flexibility in project siting and would create zoning resources for solar developers.  As the SunTec Accomack solar farm demonstrates, the growth of utility-scale solar is inspiring Virginia’s localities to work with stakeholders to develop creative solar policies. For more on the recent Planning Commission meeting, click here.