It takes a village to raise solar panels. 

The benefits of renewable energy from solar can be cost effective and contribute to economic development. It also aligns with state climate goals and recently passed legislation, but it takes a team from planning and paperwork to installation and coordination. 

To help with that, the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has partnered with the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) to host an advisory program, SolSmart, aimed to help local governments implement and embrace solar energy. 

With state and local goals of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, it will take a lot of leaning on renewable energy as part of that. 

“We will have offshore wind, but the biggest part of our renewables portfolio is going to be solar,” said William Shobe, director at UVA’s Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

As state legislation will enhance the capacity for third-party developers to place solar projects, in Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co. territory, Dominion is also involved in a large offshore wind project. Embracing solar, however, is more than installing panels, Shobe says.

“You can’t just throw all that solar on the ground, it doesn’t just happen like that,” he explained. “Private companies come in and propose solar farms and sell output to Dominion. Localities have the zoning and planning power in the state. You need to make sure that proposed solar farms are consistent with local plans and priorities for land use and zoning.”

The SolSmart program — funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office — is led by The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). 

“Localities are going to need to make a choice about how they tax solar facilities,” Shobe said. “In order to make that choice properly, they’re going to have to think about whether or not they need a specific solar ordinance in their zoning rules.”

Through the partnership between DMME and UVA, there will be a focus in advising localities along the Peninsula and Southside Virginia. 

As Southwestern Virginia was once a concentrated area of coal-energy in the state, the shift to renewable energy can revive the economy and transition an old sector into a new one.

Revenues from installation use construction labor, which Shobe said may be particularly helpful for job creations as the economy recovers from COVID-19 impact. With the implementation of solar farms, farmers can lease portions of their land, while counties can benefit from the output of the energy. 

“Once it’s built, there’s almost no cost associated with it,” Shobe said.  “If you build a new neighborhood you have to provide county services — police, water, infrastructure.” 

The program is also aimed at identifying and removing barriers to solar development at the residential, commercial and utility scale. Its advice can save time and money for local governments to better help local communities adopt solar energy. 

Shobe says the barriers and frictions for going solar stem from the newness of it all. 

“It takes a little while to get used to the permitting issues — ‘How does distributed solar fit into the local fire code?’” Shobe said. “Counties can benefit from communicating with others that have had that experience and we want to help facilitate that conversation.” 

While the focus of the partnership lies in areas beyond Charlottesville and Albemarle, Shobe said UVA looks forward to helping out locally how it can. 

“Cooper Center is right here, and we are always going to be looking for opportunities to work with Albemarle County and Charlottesville,” Shobe said. “We are not funded right now to work in those areas, we always want to work with our local town and county to help out in the ways we can.”