Are There Better Places to Put Large Solar Farms Than These Forests?

CHARLOTTE COURT HOUSE, Va. — In Charlotte County, population 11,448, forests and farms slope gently toward pretty little streams. The Roanoke River, whose floodplain includes one of the most ecologically valuable and intact forests in the Mid-Atlantic, forms the county’s southwestern border.

On a recent driving tour, a local conservationist, P.K. Pettus, told me she’s already grieving the eventual loss of much of this beautiful landscape. The Randolph Solar Project, a 4,500-acre project that will take out some 3,500 acres of forest during construction, was approved in July to join at least five other solar farms built or planned here thanks to several huge transmission lines that crisscross the county. When built, it will become one of the largest solar installations east of the Rocky Mountains. Although she is all for clean energy, Ms. Pettus opposed the project’s immense size, fearing it will destroy forests, disrupt soil and pollute streams and rivers in the place she calls home.

“I was so excited and hoped to see solar canopies over parking lots, solar panels on rooftops, solar panels on big box stores” after Virginia passed a 2020 law requiring the elimination of fossil fuels from its power sector by 2050, Ms. Pettus says. “I never dreamed it would involve so much deforestation and grading in a place I deeply care about.”

The conflict Ms. Pettus described is becoming increasingly common in rural Virginia, where a recent boom in solar farm construction has given many people pause. Conservationists and farmland advocates argue that the solar gold rush is displacing valuable forests and farms when panels could instead be going on already developed or degraded land, including abandoned industrial sites and landfills. Some even warn that a decades-long push to protect the Chesapeake Bay could be undermined by panel-driven forest loss.

Since approving Randolph and another large installation, Charlotte County has put a hold on any new solar projects until at least 2024. Measures like these, which have been implemented in at least 31 states, may become a major hindrance to implementing the Inflation Reduction Act, recently signed into law by President Biden. For the great promise of renewable energy to be realized, states like Virginia must create an environment where solar, nature and people can peaceably coexist.

“It’s very unsettling from our side to see the hardening on the sides of the issue,” saysJudy Dunscomb, a senior conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy, which supports both renewable energy and forest conservation. “Folks are trying to push through these really big projects on the one hand, and localities are becoming increasingly anxious about the potential impacts of those projects.”

The Amazon Solar Farm, developed by Dominion Energy, in Climax, Va., a 1,500-acre, 120-megawatt project.Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The ambitious targets in Virginia’s 2020 Clean Economy Act make it an early mover in the eastern United States, but nearly every state could face some version of this conflict. In every conceivable scenario that avoids catastrophic climate change, solar energy must play a central role in shifting our economy off fossil fuels. For example, a recent report from Net-Zero America, a research group at Princeton University, found that for the U.S. economy to be fully decarbonized by 2050 U.S. solar production may need to grow more than 20-fold, potentially occupying an aggregate area the size of West Virginia.

Utility-scale solar is now as cheap as or cheaper than any other form of power, but it is space-intensive. The American Farmland Trust projects that to meet renewable energy targets, many eastern states, which have relatively high population densities, may need to devote between 1.5 percent and 6 percent of their undeveloped land to solar panels.

Still, there’s plenty of space for those panels, even in a future in which most or all of our electricity comes from clean sources, and in which widespread deployment of electric cars and heat pumps ratchets up demand for electricity. Several independent estimates suggest the country could power itself with roughly the acreage currently dedicated to land most everyone would agree is already degraded. And up to 39 percent could be met by putting panels on roofs. “We have tremendous opportunity on rooftops, on parking lots, on other areas like that,” says Garrett Nilsen, the deputy director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.

Yet rooftops and parking lots are not where most panels are going in Virginia, or elsewhere in the United States. A 2021 study found that most solar panels in Virginia end up in forests and on farmland. And nationwide, about half of new solar is built in deserts; more than four-fifths of the rest goes on farmland, forest land or grasslands, according to a separate analysis.

That makes sense; such land is often cheap and easy to build on. Public and corporate policies are also driving big solar development to such spaces. The 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act has converged with the needs of one of the state’s fastest-growing industries: data centers. Many of these facilities are operated by tech giants, such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft, that have committed to renewable energy. The centers will soon gobble up two gigawatts of power, a recent report estimated — almost one-sixth of the state’s total power consumption.

Neither the state nor the tech giants determine where new solar projects go. Siting is instead left up to developers, who often seek out large, flat parcels near transmission lines, and to local governments and planning and zoning boards, which are often unprepared to assess solar’s environmental impacts. And Virginia offers relatively few incentives to encourage development on rooftops, parking lots or other developed or degraded areas.

The solar installations that are coming online will help reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels. But the forests and farms they often replace help the climate too. Virginia’s forests absorb about one-fifth of the state’s emitted carbon dioxide, and it will need every bit of those trees’ carbon-sucking power to offset emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as transportation and heavy industry, Ms. Dunscomb says.

Forests also support wildlife, prevent erosion and keep pollutants from running off into waterways. Deforested land loses some of its ability to absorb storm water, leading to increased flood risk and dirtier water downstream. At the same time that Virginia is attempting to add some 30,000 acres of forest annually to meet its obligations under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which requires that states in the bay’s watershed reduce the pollution they send into the bay, it may be losing close to that amount to new solar arrays, estimates Chris Miller of the Piedmont Environmental Council in Warrenton.

Farmland’s environmental impact is more mixed — it can be a carbon sink or source, an absorber or source of water pollution and a stronghold or destroyer of biodiversity, depending on how it’s managed. But it has another obvious and important use: growing food. Solar panels typically take farmland out of production, and it’s not yet clear whether these conversions are temporary or permanent.

These issues came to a head during the several-year debate over the Randolph Solar Project, which will deliver a whopping 800 megawatts to the grid, nearly as much as a typical nuclear plant.

Ms. Pettus fears that Randolph, along with several other large projects that have already been approved in the county, will send soil and storm water streaming into Roanoke Creek, which includes several pristine wetlands and ultimately drains to the Roanoke River. Runoff from deforested slopes could harm water quality and aquatic life, Ms. Pettus says.

Francis Hodsoll, the C.E.O. of SolUnesco, the developer of the Randolph Solar Project, has promised to preserve 6,000 acres of trees on the 13,000-acre site, create wildlife corridors and ensure that the project doesn’t harm water quality — something he acknowledges certain earlier projects did not do. “I think everybody who wants solar to continue in Virginia has gotten very serious about this issue,” he says.

Aaron Ruby, a media relations manager for Dominion Energy, which plans to buy the project and complete its construction, promises that the company will maintain protective buffers around wetlands and waterways, capture storm water and minimize grading and topsoil loss. Still, 3,500 acres of forest will be removed to make room for the panels. Much of that would likely have been cut anyway at some point, but the solar project will prevent new trees from regrowing and absorbing carbon.

After numerous hearings, the county’s board of supervisors in July gave the project a conditional use permit, enticed by hundreds of millions of dollars in projected revenue that they hope will allow them to lower property taxes.

The solar boom has created new alliances. Environmental groups such as the Piedmont council and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, while supporting clean energy generally, have found themselves joining farm bureaus to call for measures to reduce large-scale solar’s impacts on nature and farmland. This spring, the Virginia legislature passed a bill acknowledging that utility-scale solar can have a “significant adverse impact” on forests and farmland and creating an advisory panel to develop measures to reduce this impact.

Meanwhile, libertarians and free-market conservatives have allied with the solar industry to back property owners’ rights to use their land as they wish.

There are also softer values at play. Solar panels can have a futuristic beauty, but for many people they’re a blight. Much of the opposition to large solar projects has centered less on nature than on aesthetics, historical preservation, property values and rural character. Some of it has also been fueled by misinformation.

Motivated residents can scuttle projects, as happened last year when the Culpeper County board of supervisors nixed a proposed solar installation in central Virginia in response to citizen opposition. Other counties have revised zoning rules to restrict the size of new projects or even ban them altogether. And again, it’s not just happening in Virginia: Researchers from M.I.T. found that between 2008 and 2021, 53 utility-scale renewable energy projects were delayed or blocked in the United States, leading to almost 4,600 megawatts of lost generating capacity — enough to power nearly a million homes.

A Dominion Energy solar field on former farmland in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

If today’s relatively modest solar rollout is already facing such strong headwinds, imagine what will happen when states and companies move closer toward going 100 percent renewable. The Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits and other incentives could quintuple the amount of solar installed annually by 2025, according to Princeton’s Zero Lab, but only if developers and installers win approval for projects.

There are plenty of places where solar energy could be developed without triggering conflicts with natural resources or concerns about rural landscapes. Rooftops and parking lots combined could, in theory, meet nearly 80 percent of the nation’s electricity needs, according to the Department of Energy. But absent incentives, such sites are generally more expensive to develop than forest or farmland.

Dominion, in partnership with T.N.C., will also be developing a solar farm in southwestern Virginia on a flattened mountaintop that was blasted away for coal. Projects like this one hit a sweet spot: big enough to realize economies of scale, sited on already degraded land, and poised to boost the economy of a region that sorely needs it.

More such former industrial sites are available — on landfills, for example — but they are often far from transmission lines. And the surfaces of such sites can be unstable, making construction complicated and expensive. “We can’t really brownfield our way out of this,” Ms. Dunscomb acknowledges.

But an analysis she recently conducted also delivered good news: With careful planning, Virginia can meet its solar needs while protecting the most valuable forests, wetlands and other ecosystems. Marginal farmland with poor soil, typically used for hay or pasture rather than crops, could be a better option than forest or prime farmland, for example. While some places are too steep or too far from high-voltage transmission lines to be potential solar sites, a more equitable, transparent and environmentally sensitive distribution of solar energy is possible.

States that are still ramping up their solar efforts should learn from what’s happening in Virginia. Because just about the worst thing that could happen to the climate is for one of its best allies to be seen as such a bad neighbor that nobody wants it around.

Gabriel Popkin is an independent journalist who writes about science and the environment. He has written extensively about threats to trees and forests.

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