Solar our next crop?

Published 11:36 am Wednesday, May 17, 2017

IW, Surry have all the necessary elements

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Dominion Virginia Power’s recent announcement that it plans to beef up its use of solar power comes at a time when solar farms are beginning to operate, or be approved, in Isle of Wight and Surry counties.

Isle of Wight has one farm near Longview, and other landowners have also been approached. In Surry, there is a farm on Chippokes Farm Road and another planned for a tract fronting Route 10 and Hollybush Road.

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While those particular solar farms will be producing electricity for customers, they are not included in the 5,200 megawatts of power Dominion estimates it will need as part of its integrated resource plan, which looks 15-25 years into the future. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Whether that means more solar farms are coming to Isle of Wight and Surry counties right now is not known, said Dominion spokesperson Bonita Harris.

The focus on solar is simply part of a planning forecast for the future, and Dominion does not know how many farms will be necessary, or where they will be located, to achieve its goal, she said.

But the two counties have all the elements that Dominion says are necessary for solar expansion. What makes a tract of land attractive for a solar farm includes certain criteria, such as having access to a distribution line or transmission line that can connect to the grid. The land must be flat with maximum exposure to the sun and must result in the least amount of environmental impact, Harris said.

Isle of Wight and Surry counties have more transmission and distribution lines than the average rural county due to their proximity to the Surry nuclear power plant, Harris said, adding that solar power taps into the distribution lines.*

Solar farms can be large — the largest current being planned is a 100-megawatt facility in Southampton County. Another large facility is an 80-megawatt farm in Accomack County, Harris said.

The farm in Southampton is about 1,200 acres, according to the Tidewater News.

By comparison, the solar farm in Longview is 187 acres and will produce 19 megawatts of energy.

Typically, an independent company develops the site and then Dominion either takes over the facility or purchases the energy that is produced.

Dominion’s Solar Partnership Program has also placed company-owned solar panels on leased rooftops and grounds of government and business properties throughout its Virginia service area.

The panels are made of non-hazardous materials and can be removed when their lifespan is complete, in about 25-35 years, said attorney Roger Bowers, who was representing Colonial Trail LLC, which is owned by Urban Grid. The company is developing the solar farm off Hollybush Road.

Once removed, the land can revert to its previous use, Bowers added.

Recently, the Isle of Wight County Planning Commission asked staff to look into the impact of solar farms, such as weed control.

Weeds are controlled by mowing, or grazing animals, such as sheep, said Isle of Wight County Assistant Director of Planning and Zoning Richard Rudnicki.

Also, solar farms, so far, do not appear to have a negative impact on surrounding property values, he added.

In Surry, the proposed 400-acre solar farm will be protected from sight by large buffers of vegetation, said Bowers. The entire site is 1,241 acres.

North Carolina plans to take vegetative buffers a step further, and is working with solar farms to plant native species to attract pollinators and be animal friendly. (See accompanying story below).

Grid modernization

Another aspect of Dominion’s plan to increase its use of solar could include an exchange of electricity between power stations and individual homes and businesses.

That means that energy produced by rooftop solar panels — or solar farms — could flow to a centralized power station as much as in reverse, according to Dominion spokesperson Bonita Harris.

What it will take is the modernization of the existing power grid, said Harris.

Dominion’s grid modernization plans will support a scenario where electricity changes from being produced steadily in a few locations, to being produced variably in thousands of places, like open fields, industrial parks or subdivisions, or the roofs of people’s houses. When solar is connected, the distribution grid must become a two-way network so Dominion can deliver energy seamlessly to everyone, including people with solar panels on their rooftops, Harris said.

A modernized grid must have smart metering and intelligent grid devices, new communications infrastructure and advanced distribution systems, customer information and data and analytics platforms, and automation of substations, she said.

Under Dominion’s plan, solar will be coupled with natural gas and nuclear, to cut a customer’s overall carbon footprint — which is the goal of its long-range plan, according to Dominion. 


*Transmission versus distribution lines 

 Transmission lines are the large high-voltage lines that carry electricity over long distances, such as from a power station to a city or from a grid to a city. They are placed on physically tall structures, such as the lines crossing the James River along the James River Bridge.

Distribution lines are lower voltage and represent the final stage in the delivery of electricity to end users. Distribution lines are mounted on smaller poles, typically along roadways.

Information courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power


 Using native plants along with solar panels

        By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Black-eyed Susans, crimson clover, coreopsis and other brightly colored flowers could become part of the solar farm landscape in neighboring North Carolina.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is working with solar farm owners on developing a range of seed mixes and vegetation that would not only cut down on the expense of mowing, but also benefit pollinators and other animals.

Solar farm owners have to mow the vegetation under and around the solar panels every week, or every two weeks, and it’s an expense that can be mitigated by planting height-appropriate perennials under and around the panels, said Gabriela Garrison, Eastern Piedmont habitat conservation coordinator with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

At the same time, localities are getting complaints about the appearance of North Carolina’s burgeoning solar farms, she said.

One solution is to find a seed mix to plant under the panels and in the rows in between that would require little maintenance, be attractive and assist pollinators, such as bees — and at the same time, assisting a renewable energy source, Garrison said.

Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as well as bats and birds, are threatened by a variety of factors, such as changes in land use, pesticide use, diseases and pests.

Minnesota took the lead last year and passed a law allowing participating solar farm owners to publically declare them beneficial habitats for birds and pollinating insects.  

Garrison is working with local nurseries to develop blends that would bloom during each phase of the growing season to maximize use by pollinators, as well as be attractive for the longest period of time. 

Garrison said the initial start-up costs of purchasing the seed would be mitigated later by lower maintenance costs — and the plants can self-seed for the next year.  {/mprestriction}