Many Civil War battles were fought on the farms surrounding Culpeper, Va., about an hour outside Washington, D.C., and in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now, a new conflict is underway, as members of the local community push back against energy providers attempting to cover Culpeper—and other parts of rural Virginia—with solar facilities, sometimes thousands of acres in size.
The push for solar in Virginia is part of a nationwide effort to ramp up several fashionable renewable energy sources in the United States. To attract energy providers, federal, state, and local governments offer generous tax credits and subsidies for solar and wind facilities.
Virginia's General Assembly voted in 2016 to subsidize solar and wind energy with an 80 percent sales and use tax exemption for machinery, tools, and equipment for public service corporations, following a number of legislative pushes for clean energy in the state. It was a successful strategy: Since the decision, solar providers have gained approval to set up shop in Spotsylvania, Chesterfield, Accomack, and other communities. The proposed solar facility in Culpeper, operated by the California-based Cricket Solar, will cover 800 acres of land intended for agricultural use and is set to produce 80 megawatts of power for the county.
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But a growing body of research shows that, in the long run, solar isn't efficient enough to justify the land used and the money spent to make it a primary energy source. Doug Orye, an industrial electrical contractor who operates a farm near Culpeper, said he fears that solar companies moving into Virginia are using up land that would be better served for agricultural use.
"We're destroying huge amounts of land for a system that, at best, is 20 percent efficient," he told the Washington Free Beacon, explaining that for their cost, solar facilities produce an almost negligible amount of energy.
Orye added that in his experience, solar works best in small-scale situations, such as panels installed on private rooftops and sheds. For larger scale projects, though, the area solar panels cover coupled with their fickle nature—such as the impossibility of use on rainy days or at night—makes them not worth a hefty investment from government entities.
"I don't have a problem with clean energy—I've got a background in industrial engineering—but it's got to be efficient," Orye said.
Orye points to states such as California as previous places where solar providers have reaped the benefits of tax credits and subsidies, without significantly contributing to renewable energies. California was one of the first states to embrace solar, mandating in 2002 that energy providers begin implementing it as a power source, and by 2020 will require all houses to be built with solar panel installations. The state leads a nationwide trend that has been gestating for nearly two decades.
Federal and state governments subsidize the introduction of wind and solar—along with many other renewable energy sources—into local production lines to help aid the growth of these industries. Wind receives the most federal subsidization, with solar following in a close second. Between 2010 and 2016, solar subsidies ranged between 10 cents and 88 cents per kWh (the standard measurement for energy produced in an hour) and between 1.3 cents and 5.7 cents per kWh for wind. In comparison, other clean energy sources such as natural gas and nuclear power received between 0.05 cents and 0.2 cents per kWh in this time period.
But wind and solar are also the least efficient alternatives and dramatically raise prices to create energy. Electricity production prices went up 11 percent in states with mandates requiring subsidization for solar power seven years after their implementation, a recent study from the University of Chicago found. The same study found that after 12 years, prices rose 17 percent.
At the same time, the amount of energy saved in these states has been minimal. With the mandates, the amount of renewable energy in power generation was only 1.8 percent higher after seven years and only 4.2 percent higher after 12 years.
In Accomack, Va., local officials are regretting a 2017 decision to allow the Utah-based solar provider sPower to set up a facility in the area. Its purpose, in large part, was to serve Amazon and Microsoft, whose recent expansions into Virginia prompted the tech giants to pledge to use more renewable energy.
But it soon became clear that solar would not give a meaningful contribution to the tech giants. Amazon needs 7,000 megawatts of solar power to meet its commitment in Virginia, according to Ivy Main, chair of the Sierra Club's Renewable Energy Committee. It takes 160 to 200 acres to produce 20 megawatts of solar power, according to Dominion Energy—meaning that, at the very least, it would take 56,000 acres of solar to produce that amount of energy. In that case, a suitable power plant would require roughly 87.5 square miles of land covered in solar panels.
The Accomack solar facility still collects its subsidies and credits, which amounted to $1.1 million in 2018. But county supervisors are trying to make sure that it can't happen again. In 2017, county supervisors voted to restrict solar use for future facilities to only the few pieces of land zoned for industrial use.
"We are an agricultural powerhouse: We're ranked number one in grain production and number two in vegetables and broilers in the state," County Administrator Michael Mason told the Free Lance-Star. "Agricultural property is highly prized."
In early 2019, when sPower won approval to set up one of the largest plants in the United States in Spotsylvania—1.8 million panels on a 6,300-acre property, set to pump out 500 megawatts of electricity per year—community opposition was strong, even as county supervisors passed the measure.
Sean Fogarty, a leader of the Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County group, said that decision went against the county interests.
"It's kind of a betrayal by the supervisors," he said.
Supervisor David Ross, who opposed the decision, told the Free Lance-Star that he didn't think it was wise to rely so heavily on an unproven energy source.
"I think we're setting ourselves up to be a guinea pig," he said. "I would have rather started smaller."