About Solar Development
As the largest geographic locality in the state of Virginia with close to 1,000 square miles, Pittsylvania County has caught the attention of utility-scale solar developers. To protect its citizens and landowners, Pittsylvania County has adopted a comprehensive ordinance governing utility-scale solar development (begins on page 65).
Utility scale solar projects are required to receive approval from several agencies before they can be completed. All parcels included in the project must be zoned A-1, M-1, or M-2 and a Special Use Permit must be issued by the Board of Zoning Appeals. Here is a summary of each of the solar projects that have received a special use permit in Pittsylvania County.
Once a Special Use Permit has been issued for the project, it must then be approved by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality if the project will produce more than five megawatts of energy. Once a project receives approval from the State, all required plans, including Building and Site Plans, Erosion and Sediment Control Plans, Stormwater Plans, etc., must be reviewed and the appropriate permits issued before construction can begin.
While the development is happening fast and involves hundreds of permitted acres of solar panels, so far three of the sixteen locally permitted solar projects are active. Two, including a large facility in Climax, are under construction or have received building permits, and another three are in the plan review process. Many projects that have been approved locally have not yet received state level permits from organizations like the Department of Environmental Quality.
Developing Solar in Pittsylvania County
Pittsylvania County has the space to host solar projects and the regulatory environment to protect all involved parties, including our residential landowners.
For any utility-scale solar project to be permitted, it must meet the following criteria:
- Land zoned M-1, Industrial District, Light Industry and the M-2, Industrial District, Heavy Industry, or A-1 Agricultural District.
- Located no more than two miles from an existing electric transmission line
- Located at least five miles from any other utility scale solar energy facility
To receive local approval, utility scale solar projects must receive a special use permit from the Board of Zoning Appeals. As a part of this special use permit, the Board of Zoning Appeals can apply conditions that the project must adhere to in order to be permitted. Some of the default conditions that are imposed on all solar projects include things like:
- A decommissioning bond to cover expenses
- Landscape buffers to mitigate visual impact
- Setbacks to ensure proper distance from adjacent properties
- Fencing for public protection
Along with many other rural Virginia localities, Pittsylvania County has a land use program that provides a tax break for agricultural producers. In 2020, $3.5 million in property taxes were deferred from nearly 340,000 acres in the program.
So far, the majority of the sixteen (16) locally permitted solar projects will take land out of the land use program, meaning that Pittsylvania County will receive higher tax rates on the land despite the reduced or completely rebated equipment taxes on the solar panels themselves. While the amounts received from solar are higher than land use, tax breaks meant to facilitate the development of renewable energy have significantly cut into the possible profits.
Pittsylvania County leaders, including Community Development and the Commissioner of the Revenue, have spent much of the early months of 2021 examining the two possible taxing structures that can be used on utility-scale solar projects:
- Machinery and Tools Tax, which declines as the equipment loses value over time
- A $1,400 per megawatt revenue share tax, which stays steady over time
The revenue share tax only became an option beginning on July 1, 2020, at which point the majority of solar projects in Pittsylvania County had already been approved.