By Seth Maughan

Earlier this Spring, Microsoft announced some big news. The Company broadcast “the single largest corporate purchase of solar energy ever in the United States.” On the heels of two large purchases in Singapore and India, Microsoft closed a deal to purchase 315 megawatts (MW) of solar in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This purchase brings Microsoft closer to the Company’s goal of having their data centers rely 60% on renewable energy by 2020. Governor Northam praised the deal, stating: “When companies like Microsoft invest in Virginia solar, they opt for clean and reliable energy, as well as new jobs in the energy economy we are working hard to build.”

Many large companies, especially those in the tech sector, have committed to procuring renewable energy by signing on to the award-winning Renewable Energy Buyers’ Alliance. Many of these companies are locating facilities here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Virginia has opened its arms to data centers as a source of jobs and revenue for the Commonwealth. For example, Facebook is spending $750 million in constructing its next data center in Henrico County, outside Richmond. Multiple solar facilities, requiring an additional $250 million investment, will power the facility. Amazon is also fueling their data center facilities in Virginia with solar power generated on the Delmarva Peninsula in Accomack County. In addition, the e-commerce and cloud computing giant will contract with five new solar farms in Virginia to offset its electricity usage in its web services division’s data centers.

It is clear that solar power as an investment is complementary to data centers and other large energy users.

Re-thinking Solar

Despite efforts to attract investment from large technology enterprises, some counties—especially those in Southern Virginia—have been skeptical of solar development, creating numerous hurdles to local permitting. While challenging, we have had success educating the counties and changing perceptions.

First, when local counties understand the importance that technology companies place on clean, renewable energy, the counties come to recognize the importance of aligning goals and values with those of the prospect company. The commitment to renewable energy resources by many of these large companies satisfies both their business model objectives and their leadership’s mandate to be good corporate citizens.

Second, over time localities recognize that, even if they fail to woo a large corporate investment, solar is a complementary opportunity that makes for a fine consolation prize to these large corporate investments. It is the “gravy,” as it were, for the main course!

For example, while Microsoft has no data centers planned for Spotsylvania County, the Company is investing $300+ million in the Spotsylvania solar project, generating economic activity that will ripple through the community and benefit the County government and local businesses. In fact, an independent economic analysis of two 60-MW solar farms located in Southside Virginia showed that, together, these projects could provide more than 200 full-time-equivalent jobs, $10.4 million in labor income, and more than $36.7 million in additional economic output to the county during the construction phase. Throughout the 25-year life of the solar project, an additional 15 full-time-equivalent jobs, $640,000 in labor income and $1.2 million in additional economic output are projected.

As more Southside Virginia counties recognize the benefits and embrace solar, long-term opportunities for local construction, job growth, and the business community will be realized. We look forward to partnering with these communities to generate economic activity through solar.