By Francis Hodsoll and Melody S. Gee

Melody S. Gee is a business and technical writer in St. Louis, MO.

From September 15 through October 30, 2020, Tom Tom Foundation hosted the City Rising Summit, a virtual gathering of global changemakers whose sessions focused on creating sound solutions for community recovery and rebuilding after COVID-19. During Week 7, “The Small City Movement,” SolUnesco CEO Francis Hodsoll and Becky Campbell, Manager of Government Affairs at First Solar held a fire-side-chat. Together, they dug into the opportunities that clean energy adoption brings to rural communities experiencing chronic economic decline and other socio-economic challenges. Their wide-ranging discussion included how clean energy industries can help rural communities maximize long-term economic development and success. Read on for a recap of their presentation.

What’s driving renewable energy demand in Virginia?

Campbell began the discussion with a detailed discussion of the transformational demand for solar energy, which includes state-wide initiatives like the 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act, the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, and the Renewable Portfolio Standard. In addition to these clean energy policies, businesses are also driving demand. given their renewable goals. A final driver is the declining cost of solar, with prices dropping by at least 80% over the past ten years. To meet all of this demand, Hodsoll added, Dominion Energy anticipates needing to deploy 1 gigawatt of solar every year. The question becomes, how can solar and rural communities partner for a win-win?

How does Solar benefit a community?

“Any time we approach a community about a solar project,” Campbell explained, “they want to know about the benefits to their community. If we’re taking up large swaths of property, they expect to reap some benefits.” In many of these partner communities, the poverty rate is 67% higher than the state average, drug overdose rates are 56% higher than the state average, and populations are leaving for urban areas and decimating the tax base. These economic stressors create the imperative that solar developers will be good partners and be accountable for delivering on their promises in  these rural communities.

According to a Mangum Economic report, the regions in Virginia with the most rapid growth in solar development are seeing a net economic benefit from solar that outweighs other land uses like agriculture and industry. A solar facility typically provides up to 15 times more revenue than other uses, and often becomes the largest taxpayer in the county.

In addition to revenue, solar brings construction jobs to the project area. A 100 MW project can create up to 200 well-paying jobs with contracts between 12 and 18 months. “Clean energy jobs pay 25% more than the median US salary. They’re also more likely to offer health care and retirement benefits,” stated Campbell. In Virginia, the workforce development program, SHINE, was created in partnership with the state community college network, to help train the local workforce for clean energy jobs. With several graduating cohorts so far, SHINE is one way the solar industry is facilitating the building and hiring of a local workforce.

What do neighbors say about solar projects?

At the end of their session, Campbell and Hodsoll took several audience questions, including, “What do localities and communities think of a project after it’s constructed?”

Of the 10-15 utility-scale projects in Virginia, both noted, there can be a great deal of discussion during permitting and construction phases, but once operational, it’s easy to forget that a solar project is there. “What better neighbor could you want,” Hodsoll posits, “than one who is required to have a visual buffer between you and is quiet?”

In their first Virginia project, First Solar recognizes a sense of fear of the unknown and skepticism. But when developers address concerns and operate in good faith, community members grow comfortable with the idea and eventually, because of the minimal impact and noise, they do forget about the project altogether.

Watch Francis Hodsoll and Becky Campbell’s entire presentation here and be sure to check out the entire Cities Rising Summit lineup. Click to learn more about the Tom Tom Foundation and SolUnesco.