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Youngkin administration sets stricter runoff rules for solar farms

Dominion Energy’s Whitehouse solar farm in Louisa County generates 20 megawatts on a 250-acre...
Dominion Energy’s Whitehouse solar farm in Louisa County generates 20 megawatts on a 250-acre site. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is imposing more stringent stormwater regulations for solar development.
Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 9:58 AM EDT
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The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality late this March abruptly rolled out several major changes to how Virginia will manage stormwater runoff from solar farms, saying prior policies may have underestimated water quality impacts.

Previously, Virginia had considered only the foundations or bases of solar panels to be impervious surfaces, or those unable to absorb runoff. But under Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, the solar panels themselves will begin to be classified as impervious surfaces, albeit unconnected ones.

The distinction could have significant effects on solar development in Virginia, which has set ambitious goals for achieving a carbon-free electric grid by midcentury, including the deployment of large quantities of solar power.

But while the solar industry worries that the sudden policy shift could dampen efforts to build out renewables, some local officials and environmental groups say it could help better account for how precipitation, which is increasing in both frequency and intensity due to climate change, interacts with solar farms.

Virginia, like other states, has wide-ranging stormwater rules for new development because of the impact runoff from sites can have on erosion and water quality. Stormwater concerns are particularly acute in the roughly 56 percent of the state that lies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There, the federal government has imposed targets Virginia must meet in reducing nutrient pollution, much of which comes from runoff.

In the March 29 memo announcing the policy change, Virginia DEQ Director Mike Rolband explained the move as an effort “to safeguard the protection of downstream waterways and properties as well as ensure consistency with [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s] Chesapeake Bay Program.”

On Friday, DEQ spokesperson Greg Bilyeu said in an email that the previous administration of Gov. Ralph Northam had “ignored existing stormwater management regulations” and that “in their efforts to prioritize solar project development, they ignored concerns that have continued to be raised by local officials and key stakeholders.”

DEQ did not provide specific numbers of stormwater violations linked to solar projects that have occurred, but several high-profile cases have made headlines over the past few years as solar development has accelerated. The most notorious concern was sediment pollution from the Essex Solar project in Essex County, which led to a settlement with former Attorney General Mark Herring’s office and a $245,000 fine. More recently, problems with stormwater runoff from the Belcher Solar facility in Louisa County led owner Dominion Energy to apologize to the local board of supervisors.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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