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Southwest Virginia communities recognized for solar work

July 25, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Eight Virginia coal country communities were recognized Thursday for their work to encourage the growth of solar energy, which supporters see as a means of boosting economic development in the struggling region.

The communities earned designations from SolSmart, a nationwide program funded by the Department of Energy. SolSmart recognizes local governments that have taken action to cut the time and expense required to install solar energy systems.

“Southwest Virginia prides itself on the production of energy, and this is just a different way of continuing the energy production,” said Lou Wallace, a member of the board of supervisors in Russell County, one of the eight recipients. “Many manufacturing companies are looking for communities and counties who are forward thinking, and having this designation just solidifies our commitment to our future,” Wallace said in a statement.

SolSmart has awarded more than 275 designations across the country, but the eight Virginia communities are the first to be recognized in central Appalachia. An awards event was held Thursday in St. Paul.

The “nonhardware” expenses of implementing solar, from dealing with planning and zoning to financing, constitute about two-thirds of the cost, said James Schroll, senior project manager at The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit that helps manage the SolSmart program. Streamlining those factors is intended to help draw in new solar businesses.

As part of earning the designations, most of the local governments trained their permitting and inspection staff on solar best practices and reviewed their planning documents to see how solar-specific goals could be included, Schroll said.

Others went further. Wise County adopted zoning language that would make it easier to install solar, and Scott County added a property tax exemption for solar energy use, he said.

In addition to Russell County, the communities recognized Thursday were Wise, Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Tazewell counties; the city of Norton; and the town of St. Paul.

At least seven large-scale solar projects totaling more than 4 megawatts are expected to begin construction in the area by the end of the year, according to The Solar Foundation.

“Going forward, I hope that other localities across Virginia will look to these applicants and make it easier for communities across the Commonwealth to go solar,” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement.

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