Alternatives to Solar Arrays

Mar 13, 2019

There are now more than 250 solar companies in Virginia – making and installing panels to generate power.  Prices have fallen 43% over the last five years, and many companies have pledged to get all their electricity from renewable sources soon.  There is, however, considerable resistance to so-called solar farms. 

The largest solar arrays are in California, Nevada and Arizona where sunshine and desert land are plentiful.
Credit National Renewable Energy Lab

When Spotsylvania County held a public hearing to discuss plans for a 3,500 acre solar array on land now sporting a tree farm, 130 people signed up to speak.  Many, like realtor Lynn Smith, said they favored solar energy – but not next door.

“It should not be located near residential properties.  It is an industrial utility site plain and simple!” she said.

At Virginia Tech, Sean McGinnis was sympathetic.  He heads the school’s green engineering program.

“You know I’m usually very much a proponent of renewable energy, but the size of this solar farm does give me some hesitation, especially since they’re essentially clear cutting forest in that area to put this in,” he explained.

McGinnis wishes locals would, instead, put solar panels on their roofs.  More than 70,000 Virginia households have done that, along with more than 5,700 churches, universities, schools, libraries, offices and factories.  Even so, less than two percent of the state’s energy is generated by the sun.  And even if every roof had panels on top, they would supply only a third of the state’s energy requirements. Daniel Breslau, who chairs Virginia Tech’s Department of Science, Technology and Society says centralized solar is more productive.

Experts say Virginia has ideal conditions for generation of electricity from offshore wind.
Credit WVTF

“This single project is the equivalent of putting rooftop panels on top of something like 200,000 homes," Breslau says. "These panels are much more efficient than rooftop solar.  You know, in terms of our need to reduce carbon emissions quickly, there’s really no comparison, and that will be true for some time.”

But, he points out, locals won’t really benefit from this particular project.

“They see it as a large solar company from Utah producing power for large tech companies.”

Apple, Microsoft, the University of Richmond and other big customers have already arranged to buy the power generated at wholesale rates, but locals can’t get in on that deal Breslau says, because Virginia doesn’t allow so-called community solar. In 42 other states they can.

“Electric customers can buy shares or scubscribe to an actual solar array. Whatever power comes off of that solar array they get credit for, and they get a reduced electric bill as a result,” he says.

Now the largest solar arrays in the country are in California, Nevada and Arizona – places which get more sun than Virginia and have large expanses of desert.  So why not just put all of our solar farms out west?  The answer is complicated according to Tech engineer Sean McGinnis.

“The problem is we have so much population density and energy use on the east coast of the U.S.   In order to balance these electrical grids, you have to have some of that solar power closer,” McGinnis says.

Meanwhile, data centers continue to grow in Virginia, and they are energy hogs.  There are more than a hundred around Dulles and a new one recently opened in Virginia Beach – connecting North America to Europe by subsea cable.

So how can the Commonwealth meet the need for renewable energy if solar is stymied by lack of receptive sites?  The answer may lie in the ocean, where experts say we have ideal conditions for generating wind power.  Installing and maintaining turbines will prove even more expensive than setting up solar arrays, but those wind farms would be far enough offshore to safely say the neighbors won’t complain.