solar sprawl

County committee backs 2,400-acre cap on utility scale solar projects

Renewable Energy

Culpeper County will consider placing a cap on “utility scale solar sprawl” equal to the amount of the renewable energy its residents could actually consume.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Rules Committee recommended to the full board of supervisors that large solar projects, cumulatively, “may be limited to no more than 2,400 acres” countywide or 240 megawatts of production, enough to power the current population.

In October, the board approved the county’s first-ever solar farm on 1,000 acres near Stevensburg to the dismay of neighbors, who have since filed a civil suit in the matter asking the circuit court to reverse the approval. Some of those neighbors attended Tuesday’s committee meeting for the discussion on changing the Utility Scale Solar Facility Development Project, approved in April.

The document is just that, a policy, Egertson said Tuesday, noting nothing in it “was set in stone.”

Supervisor Sue Hansohn, who has been supportive of the solar projects, wondered if the cap would limit residents from using solar panels on their roofs, for example, or at the planned career & technical education center in Culpeper, as is being proposed.

Egertson said the policy change would not impact private residential or business use of solar panels or at schools or even in entire housing developments. It would specifically only apply to utility scale projects, he said, like the one being planned for construction in Stevensburg.

“Our county regulations do not regulate solar panels put up by residents or businesses to meet their own needs,” Egertson said. “That is by-right development.”

At its meeting last month, the committee had also considered modifying the utility scale solar policy to require solar developers to prove they had an end user for their project so as to avoid projects that are just “pure speculation,” the county administrator said.

Supervisor Alexa Fritz, on Tuesday, said she didn’t think that was a good idea.

“It makes it look like the county has some say in what they’re doing,” she said. “All of this is a little premature.”

As part of the conditional use process required for utility scale projects, noted County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis, developers will be encouraged to present letters of intent from the end users of the generated power.

“The more evidence they show you the more likely they are to be successful candidates in time,” she said of the approval process.

Fritz didn’t see why the county was already changing its policy on the large solar projects.

Supervisor Steve Walker said it would helpful if the solar farm developers showed evidence of which utility company or other large user was going to buy the power.

“It would show a more legitimate interest and less speculative,” he said.

In the end, the committee opted not to modify the policy requiring the developer prove that their project is viable.

Walker said placing a limit on the total acreage for utility scale solar projects would make the policy better.

“This cap is based upon limiting the amount of agricultural land ultimately to be consumed by utility scale solar developments while also recognizing that Culpeper County should have a role in providing for a reasonable amount of renewable energy generation,” the proposed policy change states.

The matter will go the full board of supervisors at its meeting in January.

Next Era Energy Resources, the company leading the project near Stevensburg, was still in the process of securing a long-term energy sale contract when it received the board’s approval two months ago. An email Tuesday seeking an update on the end user was not immediately answered.

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