Spring 2022 Update: This legislation was successfully passed during the 2022 Virginia General Assembly Session, earning bipartisan support from both the House and Senate.
The Virginia House of Delegates has advanced HB 206, a bipartisan bill to improve the utility-scale solar permitting process in Virginia. The bill passed out of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources committee on a 13-0 vote, and is up for consideration by the full Virginia Senate.
The legislation provides a path toward reasonable mitigation standards for utility-scale solar projects that significantly impact wildlife, historic resources, prime agricultural soils, or forest lands. It has broad support, including from environmental groups, the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Association of Counties.
We can have clean energy AND healthy farms and forests. This is not an either-or choice. When utility-scale solar projects are properly sited, our climate wins. Please voice your support for this bill with your state senator.
Recognizing the importance of farms and forests
With solar energy ascendant across Virginia, we are beginning to see significant impacts to our farms and forests, with 58% of utility-scale solar projects occurring on forested lands, and nearly 25% occurring on cropland (source, p. 23). This trend exists despite the availability of brownfields, abandoned mining land and existing transportation and transmission corridors (source).
Prime farmland is an essential asset for creating a sustainable food future here in Virginia. According to the USDA, “the loss of prime farmland to other uses puts pressure on marginal lands, which generally are more erodible, droughty, and less productive and cannot be easily cultivated” (source). Forests provide indisputable environmental, social and economic benefits, including climate regulation, air and water purification, flood protection, and wildlife habitat. When solar projects involve deforestation, stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere, working cross-purpose to our larger carbon reduction goals.
PEC believes that a false choice is being set up between pursuing a clean energy future and protecting our most sensitive natural resources. That is why we are working with a bipartisan group of legislators, as well as partners like The Nature Conservancy, Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, and the Virginia Conservation Network, among many others, on House Bill 206, which would establish reasonable standards within the state’s solar “permit by rule” process to require mitigation when significant impacts occur to our farms and forests.
Reasons to support HB 206:
- The legislation establishes reasonable standards within the solar Permit By Rule (PBR) process, recognizing the importance of forests and farmland and requiring mitigation when significant impacts occur (disturbance of 50-acres of contiguous forest or 10-acres of prime agricultural soils).
- Utility-scale solar facilities are often located in rural areas and consume numerous acres (many well over 1,000 acres in size). Poorly-sited projects are leading to local pushback based on the loss of, or impacts to, farmland and forests. Commonsense measures on mitigation and avoidance would address some of the concerns raised by local communities.
- Typical construction techniques for utility-scale solar include severe compaction of soils, hampering reversion back to productive agricultural lands and forests at the end of a project’s useful life.
- The bill also requires VDEQ to include recommendations related to mitigation as part of the agency’s environmental report for projects before the State Corporation Commission.
- The bill would initiate a transparent process that establishes an advisory body to discuss relevant issues related to any future regulation. That group would complete its discussion and issue a report by November 1, 2022. VDEQ would then be given more than two years to develop and adopt the regulation (related to mitigation). Multiple opportunities for public comment would be part of this process.
- As amended, the bill offers a significant exemption for projects currently being worked on by industry, while allowing development of the regulation to proceed.