Large-scale solar project proposed in Staunton
A Richmond-based contractor is eyeing Staunton as a potential home for a utility-sized solar installation. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
A 95-acre piece of farmland bordered by Commerce and New Hope Road in Staunton could become home to a large solar array – if the project gets approved by the Staunton City Council and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ. The contractor, Oikos, is based in Richmond, and works primarily in roofing. At a public meeting on Wednesday last week, the company's attorney, Lori Schweller, told a group of about 20 attendees that this would be their first foray into solar.
A special use permit application describes two different arrays in the project:
- a 60-acre "utility-scale" installation that would produce 15.75 megawatts of electricity, and
- a 30-acre "community-scale" installation that would produce five megawatts.
City residents would have first dibs to sign up for the electricity produced by the smaller array.
LORI SCHWELLER: For 12 months, the citizens of Staunton will have an exclusive subscription period. And then at the end of that period, subscriptions will be opened up to any Dominion customers throughout Virginia.
The smaller installation would operate under the Shared Solar Program established by the General Assembly in 2020. Because of the way the law was written, as the Virginia Mercury and Cardinal News have reported, the shared solar programs currently being set up are aimed at serving low- to median-income, or LMI, Dominion Energy customers.
Schweller explained that households making less than 80% of the Area Median Income qualify as LMI – but that restriction won't be imposed on Staunton residents, just the other customers across the state who sign up for any spots left open. Dominion Energy offers a 10% bill discount for LMI participants.
Oikos Solar Systems Representative Daniel Chung told WMRA that participants will be able to "subscribe" to a set amount of kilowatt hours from the array every month.
DANIEL CHUNG: The benefit of this community solar or shared solar program, it gives lower and moderate income a 10% of their bill is discounted. … The kilowatt hour they subscribe that they don't use, at the end of months, will carry forward to the next months.
The idea is that you'd pay the same amount every month, and during the times when you're using less energy, you build up credits. Those credits then roll over to the months of peak energy usage – like when you're running the heat or AC a lot.
The energy produced by the larger array would go directly into the Dominion Energy grid. Oikos originally planned to build a battery facility on-site, but Chung said that did not turn out to be cost effective.
Dominion Energy's most recent annual report states that the energy they produce for their Virginia customers comes mostly from natural gas and nuclear sources, 8% from coal, and 5% renewables. About a quarter of the total energy consumed is purchased from other suppliers, like Oikos would be, and from a regional wholesale market.
Among Dominion's utility-scale solar facilities are:
- 20- and 88-megawatt arrays in Louisa County,
- an 80-megawatt array in Mecklenburg County, and
- a 100-megawatt array in Southampton County.
According to their website, the company has more than 20 solar projects currently proposed or under development, ranging from 18 to 800-megawatts.
Some of Wednesday's attendees expressed skepticism – such as whether the array would be unsightly, thus affecting their property value; and how the company planned to "decommission" the site whenever it shuts down. According to application documents, the developers anticipate decommissioning the site [quote] "at the end of the project’s expected useful life of 40 years."
WILSON FAUBER: The residents that have contacted me are very concerned about the decommissioning.
Wilson Fauber is the vice-chair of the Staunton Economic Development Authority, but he told me he was not representing them at this meeting.
FAUBER: Will they be able to actually decommission this, or are we going to be left with a sea of glass? … What will they do with these solar panels? Does it go into our local landfill?
Others had concerns about the local environment – such as the construction impacts on Lewis Creek and what vegetation will be planted on-site. The developers said that ditching and stormwater basins will prevent runoff from entering the creek, following DEQ regulations. And evergreen trees and native grasses and wildflowers will provide a visual barrier and benefit pollinators.
Still, some attendees were convinced that the project would be an eyesore, with one man calling it a [quote] "mountain of light."
Chung said he hopes locals will embrace the environmental benefits of the project.
CHUNG: We want to be friendly to the community with renewables, and the community to understand the carbon footprint, carbon emission is a big issue. … Subscribing to the community solar, they are anticipating a reduction of [their] carbon footprint.
The proposal will go before the Staunton Planning Commission on April 20th.