• Ian Sutton

Solar in Virginia: What’s Not To Like?

Updated: Mar 21

Credit: Unsplash

A recent post Solar: Not in my Backyard discussed the beginnings of what will be an on-going controversy in states such as Virginia. The post featured a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in which the writer expressed concern to do with the visual impact of a solar farm planned for farm land adjacent to his property.

That letter inspired a follow-up letter that was published in the Ashland section of the same newspaper. The writer of this second letter concludes with the following statement,

I’m all for clean energy. Solar and wind have their place but not as our primary energy source. Clean, dependable natural gas and nuclear energy should be the way to go.

(The complete letter is shown at the end of this post.)

Solar power has had good public relations up until now. Solar panels capture sunlight, which is free, and generate power without any of the emissions associated with carbon-based fuels such as coal or natural gas. What’s not to like?

Well, there are two issues to think about: land use and intermittency.

Land Use

Solar panels are a low density source of energy. This means that they take up much more space than a traditional power plant.

Wind farms require up to 360 times as much land area to produce the same amount of electricity as a nuclear energy facility . . . Solar photovoltaic (PV) facilities require up to 75 times the land area.

Currently, solar power provides only about 3 to 4% of the world’s energy. Programs such as ‘Net Zero in 2050’ or the ‘Green New Deal’ require that we stop using carbon-based fuels such as coal and natural gas. Therefore solar will have to quickly ramp up to the 50% level.

Until now solar power has mostly been located in remote locations, or else it has been installed very locally, i.e., on the roofs of homes and commercial buildings. What we are now seeing in Virginia is a move to install small solar farms within existing communities. If we are to meet ambitious ‘Net Zero’ goals an enormous number of these facilities will have to be installed in a short period of time. Doing so will gobble up large amounts of agricultural land. People are not going to like this.

Going First

The second concern is to do with the intermittent nature of solar power. The actual utility of a solar farm is below 20% of nameplate capacity. Half the time it is night, so there is no sunshine. And even during daytime the sun is often hidden behind clouds. This creates the ‘Going First’ dilemma.

Right now we have a system in which large power plants move electricity in just one direction — from the plant to the final user. When someone brings a small solar farm on line and connects it to the grid, we give it priority. When the sun is shining it feeds power to the grid, and the large facility backs down by the small amount just added. When the sun is not shining, the opposite happens. In other words, the large utilities are subsidizing the small producers because they are not being paid in full for the capacity that they provide.

This works when renewables represent 6% of the power generated, and some of that power is used locally, not connected to the grid. But what happens when renewables are more than 50% of the total supply? We will have to either build massive storage battery facilities to operate during the time that the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing, or build a dedicated power plant to back up the renewable source, which is absurd. Moreover, the operators of the power plants would need a pricing structure that pays them for doing nothing. (Smart Grids may help move power from where it is being generated to where it is needed. But it is unlikely that they will resolve the fundamental dilemma.)

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