In 2020, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) which seeks to make Virginia's energy economy carbon-free by 2050 and establishes a 16,100 MW goal for energy generation from solar and onshore wind. Development of carbon-free electricity generation infrastructure is essential to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, yet as renewable energy development expands in Virginia, conflicts can arise between important environmental and cultural resources.

The Nature Conservancy has developed a simple solar siting model in order to understand how much land is available for solar development in Virginia and to gauge how challenging it will be to meet the VCEA's renewable energy goals without converting prime conservation lands such as prime farmlands, biodiversity hotspots, wildlife habitats and regions of cultural or historical importance. Through this we hope to generate ongoing conversations around land use for solar development that bridge the gap between key developers, state agencies, environmental nonprofits and other interested parties.

Using the approach outlined below, we found that Virginia has about 8.76 million acres of potentially solar suitable land, of which at least 25% conflict with conservation priorities, resulting in approximately 6.48 million acres of potentially solar suitable land.  A general rule of thumb is that 10 acres are needed to generate 1MW of electricity from solar, so we assume that meeting the goal of 16,100 MW will require approximately 161,000 acres of land.  

This suggests that Virginia has many times more potentially suitable solar land area than is needed to meet our land based renewable goals and that there is path forward for all interests to work together to develop extensive solar resources on land AND to conserve important natural resources.



A SIMPLE SOLAR MODEL

Our model is "simple" because it uses only these four criteria:

  • Elevation. Only lands that are relatively flat (a slope of 15% or less).
  • Transmission line distance. Only lands within 3-mi of a transmission line.
  • Land cover. Only lands outside of developed areas and open water.
  • Area. Only lands with a contiguous area between 10-acres to 50-acres or above 100-acres.

We found that Virginia has about 8.76 million acres of land that have all four of these attributeswe call these areas potentially solar suitable. We tested our model by comparing it with places where developers have indicated they are interested in developing projects and found that 91.5% of projects in the PJM queue[1] are within the potentially solar suitable area we identified.  We did not include factors known to be important such as land price and available capacity within adjacent transmission lines because we wanted to get this model out to the public quickly and at a modest cost, and we expect that this figure over-estimates the actual area suitable for solar development.  However, despite these estimations, this model shows us that there is more than enough land available in Virginia to meet the renewable energy floor established in VCEA with solar alone.



CONSERVATION LANDS

To understand if there is enough potentially solar suitable land in Virginia to develop solar sites without compromising lands of conservation interests, we used Natural Heritage's ConserveVirginia layer.  This dataset was recently created by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage to prioritize conservation efforts, and represents a wide array of conservation values including biodiversity, agricultural and forest resources, historic and cultural resources, and scenic areas.  We found about 2.28 million acres of our simple solar model conflict with ConserveVirginia, or about 25%. This layer has some limitations in that some of the layers within it are actively being refined; however, ConserveVirginia is the only statewide dataset currently available to represent the full scope of conservation interests.  Given these limitations, we expect that ConserveVirginia underrepresents the area of potential conflict.



DEGRADED LANDS

Degraded lands provide an untapped potential for solar development in Virginia in areas that are unlikely to conflict with important conservation areas. In this project, we had hoped to be able to quantify the area of degraded lands suitable for utility scale solar development.  We explored mine site point data from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME, soon to be Virginia Department of Energy) and brownfields point data from EPA to represent degraded lands. We found that 748 of the 2,589 mine sites and 4 of the 334 brownfields fell within 100-m of our model, but we were unable to determine how much area each point represents. Therefore, we cannot say how much area of degraded land could be suitable for solar development. Fortunately, DMME is currently in the process of extending a detailed analysis of former mined lands suitable for solar in the Virginia coalfields region to cover all of Virginia.  We will update this analysis with those data when they become available.  


LAND PRICE

We originally wanted to understand how solar development, particularly on brownfields, may affect local communities, and specifically if development on brownfields might disproportionately affect communities of color, but we could not pursue that question due to the lack of degraded lands data described above.  Through conversations with interested parties we did learn of a concern that more rural communities with lower land values are experiencing higher rates of development than areas with higher prices.  To begin to understand this issue, we used land price data from PLACES Lab to map land values within the solar suitable area. We found that regions of our model that lie within Southern Virginia had lower land values in comparison to regions in Northern Virginia or regions surrounding more populous areas like Richmond that had higher land values. We cannot say whether or not solar developers will target Southern Virginia due to lower land prices in the region, but this may create a perception of inequity for people residing there. This perception must be addressed by developers in order to successfully develop renewable energy in Virginia.


KEY RESOURCES FROM OUR ANALYSIS

Below you can find resources about our analysis*

*In our solar siting analysis, we used a proprietary transmission line dataset from Ventyx and therefore we cannot share the full model. Instead, we have created county-level datasets from our model.





CREATE YOUR OWN SOLAR ANALYSIS

We have compiled a catalogue of data resources to support interested parties who would like to be able to understand more about solar energy development and potential land use conflicts within a specific area of interest.  Links to county level summaries of our simple solar model are provided in the section above.   

All datasets (or similar publicly available datasets) used in our analysis as well as other conservation and solar project datasets that may be of interest are listed below: 

ELEVATION

LAND COVER

ENERGY RESOURCES

DEGRADED LANDS


CONSERVATION


ECONOMICS


OTHER RELEVANT RESOURCES



[1] PJM is a regional transmission organization or RTO that contributes to the organization of wholesale electricity in Virginia alongside D.C. and 12 other states. The PJM queue allows energy developers to investigate prospective project opportunities in their respective regions.