Daniel Langston, PLA answers your questions about community solar and the state of the market in Virginia.

Significant barriers to community solar developments were removed last year resulting in increased interest and demand in Virginia.  This expanded solar market around the state directly benefits residents who opt in to subscriber programs created by community solar projects.

What is community solar?

A community solar project allows residential customers to share the benefits of solar power without the need to install solar panels on their property. Solar developers take on the project development process of permitting, financing, construction, and operations & maintenance of the facilities with the end goal to obtain subscribers for the project. Subscribers to community solar projects see the benefits of savings on their monthly utility bill.

Why are community solar projects coming to Virginia?

During the 2020 session of the Virginia General Assembly, rules governing the Shared Solar Program were adopted and outlined the provisions for community solar developments. The current legislation caps the projects at 5 megawatts (AC) and requires at least 30% of the subscribers to be comprised of low-income customers. It also requires projects to be located on one parcel, or adjacent parcels controlled by a single landowner. 2021 has seen a number of applications in jurisdictions across the state since the legislation was enacted.

How does community solar differ from traditional utility scale solar?

Utility scale solar developments have grabbed headlines across the commonwealth, mostly due to their size and how they impact viewsheds and natural resources in the communities in which they are proposed. Utility scale projects can range anywhere from 20 megawatts (AC) to hundreds of megawatts. Since the capacity requirements for community solar projects are currently capped at 5 megawatts (AC) in Virginia, the clear difference is in the acreage required for a community solar project. A 5 megawatt project requires approximately 25 acres of land, whereas a 20 megawatt project requires approximately 100 acres. Visual screening through use of existing and proposed vegetation is much easier to accomplish on smaller parcels of land. Additionally, community solar projects are much easier to site in order to avoid impacts to natural resources. Lastly, the offtake for community solar projects is directed to residential customers versus utility scale projects where the goal is the wholesale of power generated to a traditional utility company.

Given the differences in capacity between community and utility scale projects, points of interconnection also differ. Utility scale projects often require proximity to transmission lines and may even require construction of substations to meet the project’s needs. In contrast, community solar projects are able to tie in to existing distribution lines as long as capacity limits allow for it. Given the reduced capacity of a distribution line and the costs associated to upgrade them, colocation of community solar facilities on a single distribution line are unlikely.

By siting community solar projects on smaller parcels of land, visual screening through use of existing and proposed vegetation is much easier to accomplish. Additionally, community solar projects are much easier to design in order to avoid impacts to natural resources. Lastly, the offtake for community solar projects is credited to residential customers versus utility scale projects where the goal is the wholesale of power generated to a traditional utility company.

What steps must be taken to develop a community solar project?

Solar energy projects in Virginia localities are permitted through the special or conditional use process. Many of the jurisdictions in Virginia have adopted solar ordinances to augment the special/conditional use permit process and impose greater restrictions than typical zoning requirements. christopher is currently engaged in entitlement processes for community solar projects in eight different jurisdictions and can help clients navigate the land use process from entitlement through site plan approval. In parallel with the local permitting process, developers will be required to undergo an interconnection study with the utility provider to determine project feasibility and system capacity.

What lessons have been learned through the permitting process for community solar in Virginia?

Because community solar is new to the marketplace in Virginia, jurisdictions and local residents largely associate solar developments with traditional utility scale projects. As a result of certain localities prior experience with utility scale projects, the overwhelming majority of solar ordinances define utility scale solar as anything equal to or above 1 megawatt generated. This means that community and utility scale solar developments are subject to all the same types of requirements when going through the special/conditional use permit process.

Concerns about loss of prime farmland and views from neighboring properties and major roadways are prevailing talking points due to the large scale of previously proposed projects. Additionally, economic considerations specific to Virginia have created some hurdles for community solar projects undergoing entitlement processes. Current legislation in Virginia provides 100% property tax exemptions for the assessed value of equipment and facilities (commonly referred to on “Machinery & Tools tax”) on projects equaling 5 megawatts or less. Certain localities have pushed back on community solar for this very reason, as locally elected bodies cite economic concerns in some decisions where community solar projects have faced opposition. Each project will encounter unique issues due to siting, but largely the messaging for community solar is important through the permitting process to differentiate it from utility scale solar.

Our knowledge of the land use process and existing relationships with land use attorneys and environmental consultants who have worked on community solar applications will set up your projects for success.

Thanks to Matt Roberts with Bean, Kinney & Korman for his contribution to this article.

For more information or to employ our services for community solar, please contact Daniel Langston, PLA at daniellangston@ccl-eng.com.