Monday, December 4, 2023

UVA report sheds light on utility-scale solar farm decommissioning

Dominion Energy’s Scott Solar facility in Powhatan County, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Guidance on how local governments can protect themselves when utility-scale solar farms reach the end of their life is now available with the release of a report from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

The 60-page report released Tuesday comes after an April survey found decommissioning solar facilities to be one of the top five topics of interest for localities dealing with solar development.

“Localities have expressed they need more information about decommissioning in order to feel comfortable that in approving large-scale solar facilities, they are protecting the financial and environmental interests of the community,” said Elizabeth Marshall, senior coordinator of the Cooper Center’s Virginia Solar Initiative, in a statement. “To date, there has been very little comprehensive research or guidance on the subject, and almost nothing that is Virginia specific.”

The report focuses on utility-scale solar facilities, defined as those capable of generating five or more megawatts of electricity.

Less than 10 acres of land are currently required for each megawatt of solar capacity, with the land footprint needed for solar installations likely decreasing over the past decade with rising efficiency in technology.

Solar installations are expected to last around 30 years, although they can sometimes be operated longer. Decommissioning a solar field by removing its panels and support structures can be “a relatively straightforward process,” the Weldon Cooper Center noted, but can cost over $1 million.

While state code defines what decommissioning is and requires local governments to include decommissioning agreements as part of their approval process, localities have flexibility in setting and overseeing decommissioning processes.

Nevertheless, many local governments still have not passed decommissioning ordinances.

The Weldon Cooper report provides recommendations on ways localities can adopt such ordinances or set decommissioning requirements such as financial assurances or conditions for land restoration and post-closure land use.

The aim, wrote report author Irene Cox, was to make decommissioning “a manageable risk for localities but not an undue burden on developers.”

Local impact

Virginia had roughly 55 utility-scale solar farms as of July 2022, Weldon Cooper found. Just over 25% of the state’s 133 counties and cities have decommissioning requirements in a zoning ordinance.

The earliest, Eastern Shore Solar in Accomack County and Scott I Solar in Powhatan, began operating in 2016 and produce 80 and 17 megawatts, respectively.

Neither Accomack nor Powhatan have decommissioning nor financial assurance requirements in their ordinances, the report states. The projects do have their own financial assurances.

Localities in Virginia with varying levels of decommissioning regulations and financial assurances (FA) as of July 2022. (Courtesy of UVA Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service)

In contrast, Spotsylvania, which is home to the state’s largest solar farm, the 500 megawatt Spotsylvania solar project built in 2020, has both a decommissioning ordinance and financial assurance on the books.

Attempts to reach officials in those localities Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

In Albemarle, county staff recommended a decommissioning plan as a condition of approval for a project involving 8 megawatts of solar and 4 megawatts of storage.

“The decommissioning plan ensures that the site can return to appropriate agricultural or forestry uses when the solar-generation uses ends,” staff wrote.

Growing need

Utility-scale solar accounted for more than 5% of Virginia’s in-state electricity generation during the first five months of 2022, the report found.

Solar generation more than tripled in Virginia between 2019 and 2021.

Much of that is being driven by the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which requires the commonwealth’s two largest publicly regulated utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, to decarbonize by 2050 and 2045, respectively.

Weldon Cooper said utility-scale solar development is likely to increase in Virginia as the utilities comply with the law and the costs of solar generation continue to fall.

A June analysis by the Solar Energy Industries Association estimated that solar developers have invested $4.2 billion in Virginia to date, with more than 35% of that happening in 2021.

“The benefits of these investments in carbon-free solar development will continue accruing to localities over time as they receive tax revenues from operational utility scale solar facilities,” the Weldon Cooper report states.

This story has been updated to reflect requirements linked to the Accomack and Powhatan projects.

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