Solar Energy Sweeps Into The Valley

My son and I were watching Doctor Who. It was an episode with Daleks. The Dalek armor, he said, always reminded him of Roman shields, a technology the Romans used pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. “That’s just weird,” he said. “Now things change every year.” He is 15 years old.

It does seem sometimes like things change overnight, but more often a tipping point is reached after years or decades of incremental advance. The efficiency of solar-electricity generation has improved exponentially over four decades. Now look.

In 2021, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar made up more than half of all new electricity generated in the U.S. during the first three quarters. By 2050, renewable energy will make up nearly half of all electricity generation, and half of that will come from solar.In Virginia, 416 projects are awaiting review by relevant agencies. Those projects have potential power capacity of 22,679 megawatts (enough to power 3.7 million homes), according to a recent article in Bay Journal. PJM, the manager of our regional grid, is so swamped with applications from operators to join the grid that it has had to pause the process to come up with a plan. Clearly, the solar future has arrived.

There is a Wild West atmosphere in solar development. In the name of sustainability, developers have cleared thousands of acres of forest to plant “clean energy.” This, while federal, state, and local governments are spending millions on tree plantings to clean waterways and mitigate global warming.

There are questions about compatibility with the agricultural landscapes that many private and public entities have worked to preserve. And questions about how the massive introduction of pervious surfaces will impact water quality — again, when so much is being invested to manage stormwater runoff that destroys rivers and streams. 

There is a lot we must figure out, with not much time to spare. This year, the Virginia legislature, supported by conservation organizations, passed a measure establishing reasonable standards in the permitting process, recognizing the importance of farmland and forests, and requiring mitigation when significant impact occurs. A good start.

These are exciting times. Solar and wind energy are accelerating. Major carmakers are moving toward all-electric fleets, which will increasingly be powered by electricity from cleaner sources.

After all these years, the large-scale use of solar energy to power our homes and businesses is not a technological quandary. It’s a planning challenge and, for now, a race to manufacture and deploy as quickly as we can.If we’re lucky, time travelers like Doctor Who will one day visit 2022 to see our exciting beginnings, as we created the systems that gave them the wonderful planet they inhabit.

— David Lillard