RD189 - Virginia Renewable Energy Facilities Task Force Final Report – March 1, 2023

Executive Summary:

House Bill 774 (“HB 774"), identical to Senate Bill 499, of the 2022 Virginia General Assembly session, directed the Virginia State Corporation Commission (“SCC") to create a Task Force, in consultation with the Virginia Department of Energy (“Virginia Energy") and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ"), to analyze the life cycle of renewable energy facilities, including solar, wind, and battery storage components. HB 774 directs the SCC to submit a report of the Task Force’s analysis to the Governor and the Chairs of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources no later than May 1, 2023 analyzing various topics related to end-of-life and decommissioning, land use, and economic and ratepayer impacts for renewable energy.

A Task Force of representatives from about 30 relevant state agencies and stakeholder sectors met between October 2022 and January 2023 to learn about and share research related to the life cycle of renewable energy facilities in Virginia. Facilitated by the Keystone Policy Center, an independent nonprofit, the Task Force heard presentations from outside experts and fellow Task Force members, reviewed relevant resources, dialogued with one another, shared learnings from related state efforts, and ultimately developed a summary of the Task Force’s learnings as well as recommendations for state agencies in response to charge questions posed by the Legislature and the SCC. A detailed list of all these learnings and recommendations appears later in this report, and the following summarizes the key learnings of the group.

Summary of presentations and discussion for policymakers

• Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from renewable energy electricity generation are significantly less than those from fossil fuel-based technologies.

• Except for batteries, most renewable energy(*1) components will not reach the end of their life for decades, at which point the waste, recycling, and circular economy landscape is likely to have changed dramatically.(*2) In the interim, the state can prioritize education to local leaders and the public on current end-of-life options and support the development of robust, locally acceptable decommissioning methods and plans.

• As with other types of large development, there are many variables that determine the impacts of underground infrastructure post-decommissioning. Landowners or local government can work with developers to determine whether it is preferable for all infrastructure to be removed or for some to be left in place.

• Virginia has abundant undeveloped land that is potentially suitable for solar, but there are many factors that impact the feasibility of a cost-effective solar project on any given property, thereby limiting total available land area. These include but are not limited to local values, priorities, and ordinances; agricultural use and habitat value; developer priorities and needs; landowner participation; transmission capacity; and terrain.

• Brownfields may be suitable and offer advantages for smaller scale solar development, but siting on brownfields is more complex and/or expensive than other sites. For instance, installing solar on landfills usually requires a ballasted system with concrete foundations rather than the typical driven post foundation for fixed tilt and tracking systems; geotechnical aspects of brownfields may increase solar installation costs; soil may be significantly disturbed; and legal liability and multiple owners of the land (such as having different surface and subsurface rights) can complicate development.

• Different types of energy have different attributes and cost considerations. The elimination of fuel costs can reduce and stabilize rates for renewable energy compared to fossil fuel generation.

• Renewable energy can bring near-term and longer-term economic benefits to localities, regions, and the state (e.g., annual county tax revenue payments for the life of the project, fixed landowner payments for the life of the project, jobs, and more), along with contributing to climate change mitigation and potential grid resilience. Potential tradeoffs must be assessed on a project-by-project and regional/cumulative basis.

• Virginia does not have many utility-scale onshore wind projects underway, so takeaways related to wind energy are oriented towards planning for potential future onshore development and considering the land-based impacts of offshore wind development.

• The land footprint currently used for siting battery storage is minimal relative to solar development, and often coincident to generation, so takeaways related to battery storage are oriented towards proper accounting for storage in decommissioning requirements and consideration of the role Virginia wants to play in the battery recycling and/or circular economy.

Task Force recommendations(*3)

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy, in collaboration with DEQ, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (“VEDP"), and relevant stakeholders, should share and/or develop resources,(*4) including decommissioning benchmarks and best practice guidance, for the general public and elected officials to better understand opportunities for reuse, recycling, and disposal of solar, wind, and energy storage components.

• The Task Force recommends that DEQ, in collaboration with Virginia Energy and relevant stakeholders, should share and/or develop resources for the general public and elected officials on how renewable energy components are classified and designated as waste materials.

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy, in collaboration with DEQ, VEDP, and relevant stakeholders, should collaborate on opportunities to attract recycling and/or circular economy-oriented facilities for cobalt, solar panels, wind blades, and other components.(*5)

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy, in collaboration with DEQ, should review existing research and, if needed, work with stakeholders to conduct more state-specific research on the impact of the specific types of underground infrastructure that may be left in place post-decommissioning (e.g., electrical cabling, steel posts, concrete) on future land use and how the impacts vary between different geological conditions throughout Virginia.

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy, in collaboration with DEQ, should share information on the impacts of underground infrastructure with the general public, landowners, and local elected officials.

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy, in collaboration with DEQ, Department of Conservation and Recreation, Department of Forestry, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Department of Wildlife Resources, Department of Historic Resources, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and relevant stakeholders, should provide accurate and up-to-date tools to assist local planning staff and elected officials in making renewable energy facilities siting decisions. Such tools may incorporate or consider spatial data layers like prime soils, agricultural use and crop value, impervious surface, acid forming soils, habitat cores, carbon sequestration potential, recreation and scenic resources, and electric infrastructure information, such as by providing the VaLEN tool created through the stakeholder work group established pursuant to Chapter 488 of the 2022 Virginia Acts of Assembly's enactment clause three(“HB 894 Stakeholder Work Group").(*6)

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy should review existing research and conduct new research, if needed, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, on the economic and life cycle benefits and impacts of renewable energy on farming, forestry, and sensitive wetlands, including collecting data on different types of land that have been converted to renewable energy development and distribution of financial benefits within communities.

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy, in collaboration with DEQ and VEDP, should continue to promote solar development on brownfields.

• The Task Force recommends that the General Assembly consider funding the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund and Program, incentive programs, and/or subsidies to overcome otherwise cost-prohibitive obstacles (e.g., high interconnection costs) that are typical in brownfield development.

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy, DEQ, other relevant agencies, and electric utilities should continue maximizing benefits under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, and other available federal funding sources, for opportunities that may aid in cost relief for customers.

• The Task Force recommends that Virginia Energy should share and/or develop resources, such as the Virginia SolTax Model,(*7) to educate elected officials and the general public on the economic impacts of renewables, including:

o Reinforcing the use of available tools by localities to evaluate options for tax revenue through either the Machinery & Tools (M&T) tax or through revenue-sharing;

o Making available to localities a model or best practices on ordinances that enable revenue-sharing for solar and energy storage; and

o Continued or new analysis of the macroeconomic impacts and benefits of renewable energy development in Virginia, with transparency, clarity, and consistency with respect to the assumptions used in such analysis.

• The Task Force recommends that VEDP, in collaboration with Virginia Energy, the Virginia Community College System, and the Virginia Energy Workforce Consortium, should explore policies and partnerships for job training/workforce development in Virginia related to the manufacturing, installation, maintenance, recycling, and decommissioning of renewable energy facilities.
(*1) Unless otherwise specified, references to “renewable energy" in this document includes solar, on- and offshore wind, and battery storage.
(*2) According to the Solar Energy Industry Association’s presentation in Meeting 2, all of Virginia’s 2.5 gigawatts (“GW") of solar capacity has come online since 2016 and 75% of that has come online since 2020. Since most solar projects have a 25- to 30-year life span, solar panels will not be decommissioned in significant numbers for at least two decades from now. Wind projects have a similar life span, but because there are still very few wind turbines in Virginia, the timeline will be even longer for wind that is installed in the future.
(*3) Recommendations are not listed in order of priority. Rather, they follow the Task Force’s discussion, which was organized by charge question.
(*4) For instance, American Clean Power aggregates resources here: https://energystorage.org/about-esa/energystorage-corporate-responsibility-initiative/.
(*5) Outside of Virginia, there are counties, states, and countries creating policies to attract these industries; Virginia should draw on learnings and best practices from other localities wherever possible.
(*6) In connection with the HB 894 Stakeholder Work Group, the Virginia Cooperative Extension developed the Virginia’s Land & Energy Navigator tool. The tool is scheduled to be released in early 2023.
(*7)The Virginia SolTax Model, available from: https://solar-tax-webapp.herokuapp.com/, was developed by the Weldon Cooper Center at UVA, Virginia Energy, and others for use by localities to help them decide which taxation model to use for solar generating facilities.