The times they are a changing in Rockbridge County and other rural jurisdictions in Virginia and around the country. Plans are in the works here and elsewhere to develop utility-scale solar projects on prime farmland. Such projects have environmental benefits and provide farmers a means of earning extra income. A downside is that a conglomeration of solar panels can also detract from our scenic views, and mean a loss of farmland.
The Rockbridge County Planning Commission is grappling with a proposal by Dynamic Energy Solutions LLC to develop a 5 megawatts solar project that would go on 40 highly visible acres of a Fairfield farm between Interstate 81 and U.S. 11, just across the street from the elementary school. The planned array of 15,000 solar modules would harness enough energy from sunlight to provide electricity for 1,000 homes.
Consideration of whether to recommend a special exception permit for the array in an A-2 agricultural and general uses district is an agenda item for a third straight time when the Commission holds its next monthly meeting on Wednesday, May 12. The county’s Tourism Corridor Overlay review board is also reviewing the plans, as the proposal is on the agenda of today’s TCO meeting.
Much of the discussion to date has been on how to mitigate the views of the array from passing motorists on U.S. 11 and Interstate 81. Specific kinds of landscaping to partially screen the views will likely be required as a condition for granting the permit. The county’s Board of Supervisors will ultimately decide whether or not the permit gets approved and the solar array becomes a reality.
This could be Rockbridge County’s third commercial solar array, if it comes to fruition. One about half this size was approved a little over a year ago, though it hasn’t yet been developed, for a farm near Rockbridge Baths. A smaller one is in place on the grounds of BARC Electric Cooperative’s county headquarters at the old Highland Belle School near Kerrs Creek.
There is plenty of upside to solar energy. It’s clean and renewable. The more we utilize it, the less we are dependent on fossil fuels, which are harmful to the planet. Turning to renewable energy sources is how we can effectively combat climate change.
County government policies ought to encourage renewable energy. The solar array proposed in Fairfield offers an excellent opportunity for county government officials to do this. However, we believe that members of the Planning Commission and TCO board have been right to carefully scrutinize this project, making sure that it will do what it’s supposed to do, and to push for ways to mitigate its impact on the viewshed.
We think it is completely appropriate for the Rockbridge County Farm Bureau to weigh in on the proposal, as it has, and to encourage the county to adopt uniform policies on the process for approving utility scale solar projects. Much is at stake when prime farmland is taken out of production for as much as 35 years, the anticipated length of time a solar installation may remain in place. A comprehensive review of the county’s guidelines on these endeavors does seem to be in order.
As the farm bureau’s leaders stated in a recent letter to county officials, “The coming of indoor animal feeding facilities, cellular transmission towers and rural broadband all have required critical thought, careful planning and well-crafted zoning ordinances. Utility scale solar facilities require the same approach.”
We concur. We believe Rockbridge County should embrace solar energy so we can do our part to safeguard the future of our planet, but, as the farm bureau advises, to do so in a responsible manner that protects the myriad interests of future generations.