This is the first article in a SIGHTLINE story that explores the implications of large-scale solar development in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Click here to read additional articles in this series as well as background information and updates.
For the first article in this series, The Observer invited Danny Chiotos, a professional with a local solar company and a long time advocate for renewable energy, to research and address some questions about the nature of the specific solar generation project that initiated the request for this proposed zoning amendment. We invite other contributors to submit research and analysis-based recommendations on this topic to Solar@WeAreTheObserver.com so that we can help the community and our local government officials navigate this discussion.
A Local Voice
I am a local solar professional. I work with a local solar company (Mountain View Solar) that is based in Berkeley Springs, WV and also has offices in Winchester, Virginia and Charles Town, West Virginia. I have spent almost twenty years pushing for, and organizing for, environmental justice and renewable energy in our state — ever since I was a student performing basic energy audits at Shepherd University in the early 2000s. For the past few years, I have been helping to develop small and medium-scale solar projects for homeowners, business owners, agricultural producers, and non-profit organizations.
Scaling Solar The Right Way
Although I work on a scale much smaller than this proposed project, I see the installation of large-scale solar in Jefferson County as complementary to the ongoing development of these local, small and medium-scale solar projects. Large-scale solar is an important part of the bigger strategy to provide necessary renewable energy for the regional economy.
After looking around at other jurisdictions, I also see that a conditional use permit process is more appropriate than the currently proposed “principle permitted use category” given the scale and site-specific characteristics of large-scale solar projects. A conditional use permit process allows for public discussion to build community support.
Jefferson County has the opportunity to be one of our region’s leaders in solar photovoltaic electricity generation. There is no other county in our immediate vicinity that has more proposed large-scale, solar generating facilities, and I am personally excited that Jefferson County can be at the forefront of reducing pollution and building out solar generation.The transition to clean and renewable energy is happening at an increasing pace. It is important to realize that while this transition will not be perfect, and will sometimes involve hard choices, it is possible and the technology is here.
As I researched the proposed solar project that kicked off the zoning amendment discussion, I identified several points that would be helpful to frame the discussion:
A Smaller Carbon Footprint
Solar generation has one of the smallest carbon footprints when it comes to methods for generating electricity. Nearly all of the pollution related to solar energy occurs during the mining and manufacturing process of the photovoltaic panels, not during the installation process. The panels and ground mount systems are designed to last for decades.
Although the panels contain heavy metals, they are self-contained units and do not emit or leak heavy metals during installation or operation. While it is possible for a severe natural event to damage a panel, this rarely occurs. In practice, system owners and operators have a financial incentive to quickly replace damaged panels as part of their operations and maintenance plans. Properly functioning panels ensure full generation capacity and efficiency.
Pairing Small-Scale & Large-Scale Solar
Large-scale solar is a necessary step towards transitioning to renewable energy. From working in the field for years, I can say that small and medium-sized solar projects on homes, farms, and businesses are important contributors to building out solar that we own and that directly reduces electric bills for homeowners and business owners.
That said, in order to transition to renewable energy at a rapid pace, we need to develop large-scale solar projects too. Limiting solar generation to small and medium-sized installations also misses out on the economies of scale offered by large-scale installations. Personally, I love working with individuals to develop small-scale solar projects on their homes and businesses, but I realize that this activity needs to be complemented by medium and large-scale projects.
Removing & Recycling
Once a solar facility is built, the system owner generally has a 20 or 25-year leasing agreement with the landowner. The landowner continues owning the land, and the system owner owns and maintains the facility. Decommissioning plans are a standard part of these land-lease agreements.
There is very little permanent infrastructure left by these facilities after they are decommissioned — unlike housing developments and parking lots which are permanent. Panels can be removed for disposal and the solar industry is developing recycling plans for the massive number of panels that will be due for replacement in future decades to reduce waste. The steel racking structures can also be removed and recycled.
Certain parcels are naturally more favorable for siting solar projects. Key criteria for a successful project sites include southern exposure, ground that’s not too rocky, close access to appropriate utility infrastructure, and existing three-phase distribution lines along roads or appropriate large transmission lines (like the one that passes by Washington High School).
It is important to note that not every site zoned for solar meets the criteria to be suitable for solar development. But if a solar facility has appropriate land, interested landowners, and appropriate utility infrastructure now, it will also have the same appropriate geography and infrastructure for solar facilities 30 years later when the initial leasing agreement expires. At that point, the most likely reuse of the site is to renew the project with more advanced panels (likely increasing the generation capacity as well). Assuming current trends, the demand for solar energy will continue to grow as the country progresses towards 100 percent renewable, clean energy sources.
A Good Neighbor
Unlike many industrial facilities, solar panel arrays have low visual impact and are easily screened from roads and neighbors by appropriate landscaping. Generally, the tallest edges of the panels are 10 to 20 feet high. It is also possible to construct panel support structures to allow for compatible uses underneath the arrays and research is ongoing into co-locating agricultural uses with large-scale solar facilities. Many large-scale solar projects are already planting native pollinator species at facility locations and many allow sheep to use facility land for grazing.
Permitting Large-Scale Solar – Best Practices
The solar development process is a years-long timeline. A conditional use permit process allows for continued public involvement and ensures community support for these projects. For a similar reason, to ensure public trust, any public official with a financial interest in a project should recuse themselves from deliberation and voting on the project. Frederick County, Virginia is an example of a nearby jurisdiction that uses a conditional use permit process for reviewing and permitting large-scale solar projects. The county recently approved a $101 million solar project that will help an agricultural producer stay in business by providing reliable leasing revenue for the use of part of their land.
The Queue to Connect
Jefferson County can expect continued development interest in large-scale solar. Every large-scale electricity generation facility needs to apply to the regional grid operator (PJM in the mid-Atlantic states) before connecting to the system. The application queue that develops is one way to estimate the potential for future solar projects in an area. Currently, the PJM Interconnection Queue shows 271.5 megawatts of solar facilities proposed for Jefferson County. The land required to support this generation capacity would equate to roughly 1,500 to 3,000 acres (assuming a ballpark figure of 5 to 10 acres per megawatt).
For comparison, Frederick County, Virginia has 234 megawatts proposed and Loudoun County, Virginia has 100 megawatts proposed. Queued projects are not guaranteed to be built. Rather, it means that a solar project developer has started the process of evaluating the siting and building of a project. Often these submissions to the PJM Interconnection Queue are just placeholders and many projects in the region are shown as withdrawn or suspended.
The transition to renewable energy is coming. We should get our zoning ordinances in shape to allow best-practice solar development and public oversight of the development process so we can put Jefferson County in the local lead for solar generation and provide sustainable power for our local economy.