Wave of solar worries farm, forest advocates

Tisdale Road residents are upset about plans for a large solar farm in what is now a cornfield across from their homes.

As solar projects become more visible in Louisa County, they are causing debate about what the landscape in rural areas should look like.

Solar has become popular for its potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change and reduce Virginia’s dependence on fossil fuels. But utility-scale solar development has another, less attractive impact: It takes the place of farm and forest land.

Several residents on Tisdale Road are up in arms that the large cornfield in front of their houses is about to be converted to a sea of solar panels. While their concerns weighed heavily on the Louisa County Planning Commission during its July 9 meeting, some members were also concerned about the impact for area farmers.

The commission approved a zoning code amendment that would require solar builders to include pollinator-friendly, native plants in the vegetated buffers around their projects. The plants are valued because they attract bees, which are commonly used to pollinate a wide variety of crops.

“I think pollinators are a huge benefit to agriculture,” said Holly Reynolds, the commission’s chair. “The farmers need bees there to pollinate crops — soybeans are the big one in this area.”

Lee Downing, a representative for Belcher Solar, which is developing the Tisdale Road site, agreed to plant 20 acres of pollinators after negotiations with county community development staff. Charles Purcell, who owns a site slated for solar near Northeast Creek Reservoir, committed to 25 acres. Eric Purcell, his son and the Louisa District supervisor, co-owns the property.

Downing said he was somewhat concerned about the price of pollinator seeds. He said the cost to buy and plant the seeds is roughly $4 to $5,000 per acre.

The state conservation and recreation and environmental quality agencies and several partner organizations are urging solar developers to include pollinators in every project they do. Over time, that could cause seed prices to drop as the supply increases.

The state says other benefits of pollinators are that they sequester carbon better than ordinary grass, and reduce erosion. Moreover, if solar developers choose their plants wisely, they can reduce mowing costs over time because many pollinators will not grow high enough to shade solar panels.

While the Tisdale Road site is an example of a farm that will disappear, most solar is being developed on land that has long been used to grow timber. Forestry is one of Louisa County’s largest businesses, and the potential for solar to affect that is a concern for some people in the field.

“Unfortunately the timber business is becoming less and less viable,” Charles Purcell told the commission, citing what he said was a 50 percent drop in prices in the past year.

Charlie Becker, a manager for the Virginia Department of Forestry, said whether landowners are seeing a decline in revenues depends on what they are growing their trees for. The market for pine trees harvested after 15 to 20 years is depressed, in part because a large pulp mill in Maryland recently closed. But Becker said trees grown for 30 years or longer retain much more value because they can be sold for lumber.

Still, Becker said he is worried about the potential for solar to disrupt the forestry business.

“We look at it as land conversion,” he said. “We’re concerned because of all the other benefits forests bring.”

Solar companies describe their projects as temporary because the solar panels have a lifespan of about 35 years. The county’s conditional use permits for these projects include a stipulation that the land will be returned to agricultural use afterwards. However, it’s possible a new set of solar panels could simply replace the old ones for another generation.

“For 35 to 40 years to be temporary is beyond me,” commented Tisdale Road resident Charletta Anderson, speaking to the planning commission at the July 9 meeting. “We were under the impression we were going to live in the country.”

Trees are unrivaled in their capacity to recharge groundwater and minimize stormwater runoff, according to David Stone, forester specialist in Louisa County for the DOF. They also have benefits for controlling climate change because they capture carbon and emit oxygen.

“When you remove trees, there’s nothing there to slow water’s movement,” Stone said. That’s why his agency strongly encourages loggers to leave tree buffers along streams.

The planning commission deferred action for a second time on the Belcher Solar application, voicing concern about whether the proposed Tisdale Road tree buffer would be adequate. Commissioner Ellis Quarles (Patrick Henry District) said he was concerned by reports of sediment runoff into a stream from Belcher’s nearby solar construction site, east of Waldrop Church Road.

The commission voted to recommend approval of the Purcell solar project, which will be developed by a British and German consortium. A much smaller solar development off of Apple Grove Road was also approved. Both applications will be considered by the Louisa County Board of Supervisors at its Aug. 3 meeting.

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