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Lettin’ in the sun

SoVaNow.com / June 14, 2017
Your truly is just back from the beach with a tan to prove it. Let’s see what else has been ripening under the sun:

» In a couple of weeks (June 26) the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission will meet in Boydton to discuss how solar farms fit into the future of Mecklenburg County. I’ll take a crack at that answer: Solar energy will fit just fine! Or should. True, questions have come up with the three (!) large-scale solar arrays that are proposed for the Chase City area. It’s not unreasonable to consider how these projects match up with county zoning and land use ordinances. There might even be site-specific reasons why some of the envisioned facilities won’t fly, or should go forward only with conditions in place to address concerns of nearby landowners. But make no mistake: Solar farms are a net-net positive, generating nice economic benefits here at home and upsides for the planet as a whole. County planners — and supervisors — would be wise to find a way to make these projects work.

A few months ago, critics latched onto a supposed problem with large-scale solar arrays: These capital-intensive projects would lower the share of education dollars that Mecklenburg County receives from the State of Virginia, since that funding stream is calculated partly on the value of the county’s tax base. The greater the sum of all county properties, the less money the state will send to the local treasury to pay for our schools. Geenex Solar LLC, the second developer out of the gate with plans to build a solar array in Mecklenburg, says it expects to invest $100 million at a 946-acre site at the juncture of Highways 47 and 49 in Chase City. (The Geenex project is the largest of three solar farms that have been proposed locally.) One hundred million dollars represents a major investment that you’d think would have a real impact on the overall value of county real estate. Problem is, while this supposed wealth may skew how Richmond views Mecklenburg, the solar farms themselves wouldn’t generate much in the way of offsetting local revenue because they’re largely tax exempt. Take from one pot, don’t put back into another, and a pitiful set of pots is what you get, or so the argument goes.

This analysis has a certain logic to it, but in real terms the budgetary effect is trivial. One consultant hired by the county back in January estimated that Mecklenburg would see a $64,000 net revenue loss with the construction of a $100 million solar array (such as Geenex has proposed.) In the grand scheme of things — the county’s $47 million school budget definitely being a thing — $64,000 is a rounding error. By the way, no one would have thought to raise this argument with Microsoft’s cloud computing facility in Boydton, which is valued in the billions and is similarly tax-exempt to a major degree. No one should take the same argument seriously now.

Speaking of Microsoft, our little ol’ local tech flagship is on board with all of Silicon Valley in strongly backing the Paris climate agreement, just the kind of outstanding corporate citizenship that’ll be needed in the days ahead to counter the non-stop idiocy emanating from Washington on climate issues. (Not just Washington, either: most of our local legislative disappointments are climate change deniers, too.) While I have no idea if Microsoft has played a direct role in the rise of a Southside solar industry, I do know from their website that the company has been carbon-neutral since 2012 and is pursuing a “beyond carbon” policy with its ongoing operations. As far as the Boydton data center is concerned — and yes, data centers are ginormous energy sinks — Microsoft offers simple, if generalized, guidance: “Availability of renewable energy is among the criteria that we consider in where to locate our datacenters.” Maybe the sudden rush to build solar farms hereabouts is purely an outgrowth of the unique and advantageous angle at which Chase City lies in relation to the sun. But I’m guessing not.

» At the time of this writing, there was no way to know, absent mad skills of the Dr. Who variety, who would win the Democratic gubernatorial primary between Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello. Either candidate — the current lieutenant governor (Northam) or the former 5th District congressman (Perriello) — should have little trouble unifying the Democratic Party heading into the November election against whoever the Republicans put up with their June 13 primary. (Candidates seeking the GOP nomination for governor were Ed Gillespie, Corey Stewart and Frank Wagner.) By the time you read these words, we should know who won the primary races for both parties. Should.

Despite their broad favorability among Virginia Democrats and wealth of shared positions, there was one big issue separating Perriello and Northam heading into Tuesday’s vote: their posture towards Dominion Virginia Power. During the campaign Perriello took aim at Dominion’s chronic influence-peddling in Richmond (no serious observer should feel a need to insert the word “alleged” here) and criticized the utility’s less-than-inspired approach to renewable energy development. Virginia has a lamentable record of spurning solar and wind energy when planning for future energy needs — this is a utility company, after all, that keeps trying to build ginormously expensive nuclear power facilities — and one suspects part of the problem is that small-scale renewables could loosen Dominion’s grip on customers. No wonder the company likes the landscape tilted away from renewables.

Northam, who ranks as a great guy in my book on most energy issues (he was an early and vocal opponent of uranium mining in Southside) is pretty much like every other Virginia Democrat or Republican in his reluctance to cross swords with Dominion. With all the money that Dominion pours into political campaigns, it’s no wonder. Voters can expect this state of affairs to continue only until such time as they express a contrary opinion at the ballot box. Perriello seemed to be banking on just such a possibility as he campaigned against Dominion leading up to the primary. If his bid is successful, it will mark probably the first time since Henry Howell made a political career out of howlin’ at VEPCO (Virginia Electric & Power Company, for those of you who are not quite so old) that a statewide candidate has gotten traction by railing against the Commonwealth’s paragon of corporate excess. We’ll know soon enough how it all works out.

Normally, I’d guess that other issues aside from Dominion distemper would drive votes in the Perriello-Northam race. But several times in the past year, I’ve had occasion to travel to Nelson County, where you can’t drive past a mailbox without first seeing a bunch of “no pipeline” signs. The reference is to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 554-mile natural gas line that Dominion is seeking to build with other deep-pocketed energy partners from West Virginia to South Carolina. People in Nelson and nearby counties are leading the opposition to the pipeline in Virginia. (The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is also set to cross through Brunswick County en route to points further east in Virginia and North Carolina.) In a low-turnout primary, Perriello’s vocal criticism of Dominion and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could make a real difference. It’ll be interesting to see the primary results in central Virginia areas where anti-pipeline sentiment runs strongest. Even if he doesn’t win, Perriello’s stance augurs poorly for business-as-usual for Virginia’s largest business monopoly.

Of course, a couple of years ago Southside Virginia was the scene of a similar, albeit smaller, natural gas project: the Virginia Southside Extension, a 100-mile stretch of pipeline that was built from Chatham to Lawrenceville to supply Dominion’s new Brunswick gas-fired plant (soon to be followed by a companion generation station near the Brunswick-Greensville line.) Far from running into local opposition, the Southside project was hailed for providing a very real economic boost, short-term though it was. But pro-pipeline sentiment in Southside may not prevail elsewhere. We’re likely to see a future in which old coal-fired plants are converted over to natural gas, for both economic and environmental reasons. But new natural gas facilities? Something tells me the two new Brunswick plants could represent Virginia’s high-water mark for “clean” fossil fuel energy before renewables take over completely.

What happens at the ballox box, doesn’t stop at the ballot box …..





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