General Assembly makes a decision about solar control bill

Del. Richard Sullivan wanted all of us to know we got it wrong. He didn’t actually mean for his solar control bill, HB636, to be voted on in the 2024 General Assembly session. Instead, Sullivan insisted on Tuesday, Feb. 6, he just wanted to start a conversation. 

Speaking before a Virginia House subcommittee, he asked that the bill be continued, essentially postponed until the 2025 session of the General Assembly. The subcommittee members agreed, voting to push it to next year’s session. 

“The bill essentially poses a question and identifies a challenge,” Sullivan said. “(It) relates to the tension, if you will, between a state priority, a state mandate that this body has set, and the fact the root to fulfilling that state mandate is through local government.” 

Making the argument

Sullivan’s argument, and purpose for the solar control bill, revolves around what he says is one of Virginia’s long-term goals. In 2020, the Assembly passed the Clean Economy Act. It requires just under two-thirds of the state’s electricity to come from solar or wind energy by the end of 2035. Speaking to the subcommittee on Tuesday, Sullivan said the state couldn’t just rely on cities and counties to approve these projects and help the state reach its goal. 

“We have to get somewhere within the next couple of decades,” Sullivan said. “The fact is the decisions that will either allow us or prohibit us from getting there may lie at the local level. And god forbid this would happen, but if all localities decided they would close their borders to solar, wind, battery storage, or for that matter nuclear, we wouldn’t be able to reach our goals. This is a matter of state grid security.” 

Sullivan’s argument was that in order to protect Virginia’s energy grid, counties can’t be allowed to reject new projects. 

Author claims there’s some confusion

Sullivan tried to paint a picture of a future where all Virginia cities and counties actively reject all new energy projects. Except current situations would seem to cancel out that fear. Here in Lunenburg County, where solar construction is well underway, payments from the different projects have already totaled more than $1,53 million. That funding has in turn gone to help fund fire departments and emergency medical services.

Even in neighboring areas such as Charlotte and Prince Edward counties, where there’s controversy over recent proposals, residents have said they’re not against the concept, they’re opposed to where specific solar facilities would be placed. 

Solar control bill answers challenge, author says

Sullivan told the subcommittee that he’s a “great respecter of local government”, but doesn’t believe cities and counties, if left on their own, would approve enough solar or other alternative energy sources to meet the state’s self-imposed 2035 deadline. 

But Virginia’s progress to date in reaching the Clean Economy Act’s goals differs depending who you ask. According to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2022-released energy plan, solar accounted for only 661 megawatts, or roughly 3% of the state’s 26,069-megawatt generating capacity as of Dec. 31, 2021. A 2022 survey by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center, however, identified 51 operational utility-scale solar facilities across the state that were generating a cumulative 2,657 megawatts as of the same date. And while that’s the latest data we have, it’s worth pointing out the numbers are almost two years old at this point. 

What would the bill do?

Sullivan acknowledged he would likely not have the votes to move his bill forward in this session. And what does HB636 do, you ask?

The bill itself says it “establishes a procedure under which an electric utility or independent power provider (applicant) is able to obtain approval for a certificate from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) for the siting of an energy facility rather than from the governing body of a locality.”

To be clear, that would include a wide range of energy facilities, not just solar. The bill states it would apply to any solar facility with a capacity of 50 megawatts or more, any wind facility with a capacity of 100 megawatts or more. It also covers any type of “energy storage facility” with a “nameplate capacity of 50 megawatts or more and an energy discharge capacity of 200 megawatt hours or more.” And in case you’re wondering what nameplate capacity is, it’s the project’s output under ideal conditions. So for a solar farm, this is how much energy it produces with a high sun on a clear summer day.

Getting energy facilities approved

If a company wants to build a wind farm in Victoria, under this bill they could go directly to the SCC and bypass the Lunenburg County Board of Supervisors. As referenced in the bill, electric utilities like Dominion would be able to get “energy facilities” approved by the state, rather than county boards. That is, if the project meets certain conditions.

Under the bill, there are three reasons a solar, wind or other independent company would bypass local officials. First, they qualify if the county, town or city board fails to “timely approve or deny an application”. Second, it qualifies if the application “complies with certain requirements for Commission approval, but a host locality denies the application.” And third, the project would qualify to bypass county authorities if local officials amend the ordinances and put in more restrictions after the company has met all previous requirements. 

This isn’t just a referral or a secondary option. To be clear, HB636 gives the projects it approves free reign. Specifically, it states that any solar farm or other energy facility approved by the SCC “is exempt from obtaining approvals or permits, including any land use approvals or permits under the regulations and ordinances of the locality.” So basically, if approved by the SCC, these projects would get to bypass the entire local planning and zoning process. 

Postponing the solar control bill debate 

But now that the discussion has started, Sullivan said, he wants to put this aside to the next session. That doesn’t mean the discussion is over, however. 

“I think it’s an important conversation to have,” Sullivan said. “How do we as a state, as a collection of localities, get to where we need to get, with respect to our energy mix? That’s what the bill was intended to do.”