SWVA localities recognized for helping solar energy implementation

Mike Still • Jul 26, 2019 at 6:00 PM

St. PAUL – Eight Southwest Virginia counties and localities were recognized Thursday for their work in easing implementation of solar energy for residential and business development.

The localities, participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s SolSmart program, received certification plaques for their work in streamlining building code regulations and zoning ordinances to encourage solar power use for building renovations and new construction.

Wise, Lee, Scott, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties, the city of Norton and the town of St. Paul received SolSmart plaques for their project work.

In the ceremony at St. Paul’s Western Front Hotel, program community liaison Gary Hearl said that SolSmart ties into a growing demand by businesses to include on-site power generation for “resiliency” in their operations.

Hearl said that Southwest Virginia localities are looking more at incorporating solar power into new construction, while more urban areas of the state are dealing with how to merge existing buildings and solar power within their building and zoning codes.

“Above all, it’s an economic development tool for all these localities,” Hearl said of the SolSmart program. “Review what you have and implement solar-friendly policies.”

Jack Morgan, a program manager with the National Association of Counties working with the region’s SolSmart effort, said the program also helps tackle soft costs beyond actually building solar energy installations. Those costs include the roles local governments play in regulation and working with existing utilities.

SolSmart also helps localities with dealing with coal-impacted communities.

“Solar is not the only answer but it’s a piece of the puzzle,” Morgan said.

Wise County Administrator Mike Hatfield and Norton Parks and Recreation Director Michelle Knox each said that their certifications came from additions to their localities’ zoning ordinance and building regulations as well as providing access on their websites to relevant solar power permitting information.

Hearl said the SolSmart program complements existing and future data centers in Southwest Virginia. An Apple data center in Maiden, North Carolina draws power from a 160-acre solar cell array along with fuel cells for nighttime operation.

“This is a great region to have data centers,” Hearl said.

Wind, solar and power storage facilities with new business and residential development represent an all-of-the-above energy approach that complements coal resources in Southwest Virginia, Hearl said.

“I think coal has a role with carbon fiber and graphene development,” Hearl said.

Chelsea Barnes, New Economy program manager with Appalachian Voices, said the SWVA SolSmart effort has been awarded a grant from state economic development agency GO Virginia to help develop a solar energy development playbook.

The grant will go to identify solar energy-related jobs, workforce training and credentialing requirements for solar energy development, Barnes said. A market analysis of solar energy demand will also focus on the long-term impact of out-of-state investment in the region.

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