A new report sheds new light on Virginia's fast-accelerating solar generation capacity, a combined effort of distributed solar generation in urban and suburban communities and utility-scale rollout in more rural areas.
The Virginia Solar Survey, a project of the University of Virginia's Virginia Solar Initiative and the Virginia Department of Energy, surveyed 109 localities on solar development in their jurisdiction and local policy impacts.
The survey is the first of its kind to collect data on Virginia's solar readiness, policy, and experiences with solar and energy storage facilities, according the project's website. "To date, there has not been a single, centralized source of this information," partly due to dispersed zoning and public hearing records, the website said. All 95 Virginia counties and 38 independent cities were contacted in summer 2021, with an 82% response rate.
The survey distinguished between large-scale solar, defined as community- or utility-scale solar projects, and distributed-generation solar, defined as residential or nonresidential projects, each of which comes with its own geographic trends.
The report counted 51 utility-scale solar facilities totaling 2,657 MW in operation as of the end 2021 with the greatest concentration in the rural south and central regions of the state, where land is more abundant. Respondents in rural and "combination," or both rural and urban, regions were more likely to have reviewed large-scale solar applications than those in Virginia's urban and suburban areas.
Virginia's southwest and west-central regions were the exceptions to that trend, having received the fewest solar project applications in the state despite their rural makeup. This may be due to "a variety of factors, presumably the more mountainous topography, the accessibility of transmission lines" and distance between energy off-takers, the report said.
Urban, combination and suburban areas were more likely than rural areas to have posted an online summary of the local permitting process for distributed solar generation, according to the survey results. The survey identified more than 26,000 distributed solar installations with a total capacity of 248 MW.
The findings come as Virginia's 12-month solar energy output has more than doubled from just over 1,500 GWh generated in 2020 to 3,675 GWh generated in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration included in the report. The output jump is also a more than a hundredfold increase from the 30 GWh generated in 2015.
Some of the growth may be attributed to the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandated that state utility Dominion Energy Inc. subsidiary Virginia Electric and Power Co., doing business as Dominion Energy Virginia, generate 100% zero-emission energy by 2045 and American Electric Power Co. Inc. subsidiary Appalachian Power Co. do the same by 2050.
Private companies such as Amazon.com Inc. have also supported solar resource development in Virginia through power purchase agreements.
However, since the solar survey data was collected, the state has changed its tone on renewable energy. Newly inaugurated Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, described the Virginia Clean Economy Act as "unworkable" during his campaign. A bill introduced in the state Senate in January sought to repeal the act but failed to gain traction.
The Virginia Solar Initiative will release more in-depth "deep dives" based on the survey's findings later, according to the statement.
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