Amazon solar

Shannon Kellogg (left), director of public policy for Amazon Web Services, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe pose beside a large solar panel after McAuliffe announced in 2015 that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is issuing the first permit for Amazon to construct an 80 megawatt solar facility in northern Accomack County.

MELFA — An enormous solar energy farm on the Eastern Shore could be the catalyst that jump-starts Virginia’s clean energy industry, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Monday.

The project to be built for Amazon Web Services in Accomack County will span 900 acres and use 250,000 solar panels, enough to quadruple the state’s solar footprint when it is completed next year. The 80-megawatt facility would generate enough electricity to power 15,000 homes.

“We are now in the game. We weren’t in the past even suited up. We didn’t even have our uniform on,” McAuliffe said during a Monday morning plane ride from Richmond to Accomack, where he signed the permit allowing the Amazon solar farm to move forward. “I think we’re sending the signal that Virginia is open and welcoming to renewables and this is a good place to do business.”

In the second quarter of this year, Virginia ranked eighth in the country in clean energy-related job announcements with 400. But the jobs related to installing solar panels or wind turbines are only a piece of the puzzle, McAuliffe said. Such tech companies as Amazon and Netflix, which have committed to using only clean energy power sources, will not consider building in states that are not friendly to renewable energy.

McAuliffe said he met with four solar manufacturing companies during a recent West Coast trip and is in serious negotiations with a pair of them to build plants in Virginia. Those jobs would help replace ones lost in the tobacco, furniture, textile and coal industries, he said.

“When I talk about building that new Virginia economy, this is a huge piece of it,” McAuliffe said.

Dawone Robinson, Virginia policy director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said Virginia still needs to adopt more policies that give clean energy makers an incentive to build here. Neighboring states mandate that a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable resources, while Virginia’s renewable targets are voluntary.

With Norfolk sinking faster than any other city in the country besides New Orleans, Virginia should be a leader in clean energy to try to combat climate change, he said. Already, roads around Norfolk regularly flood.

“I think it’s a step forward, but we have a long way to go,” Robinson said of Amazon’s solar farm. “We’re still greatly behind Maryland, even further behind North Carolina when it comes to solar development.”

McAuliffe said he supports reducing carbon emissions, noting that Amazon’s farm will help the state achieve the carbon-cutting requirements of the federal Clean Power Plan. McAuliffe successfully argued that Virginia’s targets should be less stringent than the original plan. Now, as the state determines its path for reducing carbon emissions, McAuliffe said Monday that Virginia should not stop when it meets its target.

“We’re not only going to be able to meet those guidelines, I think we’re going to be able to exceed them here in the commonwealth,” McAuliffe said.

Federal law would allow Virginia to team up with other states and essentially sell them carbon credits once it exceeds its carbon target.

That would be a big win for the state, said Walton Shepherd, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“If you really want to get serious about building a new clean energy economy, you beat the [carbon reduction] goal and create a lot of jobs along the way,” Shepherd said.

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