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Conservative clean energy advocate wants Virginia to get solar right

During his 18 months as a special assistant with the Trump administration’s Interior Department, a young Skyler Zunk was all eyes and ears as Secretary David Bernhardt deployed conservative principles to guide large-scale energy decisions.

What he absorbed guided Zunk to his own light bulb moment — solar-powered, of course — back in his home state of Virginia.

Last August, as renewable energy continued to flourish, he and Blake Cox co-founded Energy Right.

“Blake and I are alumni of Conservatives for Clean Energy,” Zunk said about their common roots. “We launched our nonprofit when we saw a very clear need for a grassroots conservative voice in rural Virginia about clean energy because they’re seeing more energy projects than ever before.”

Skyler Zunk, co-founder of Energy Right.

As renewable energy reshapes the grid, Zunk said, it needs to be a winning proposition and developed the “right way” in rural Virginia, a magnet for solar companies seeking open expanses of land.

“Our intent is that these investments leave rural Virginia in the best possible condition for the long term,” he said. “Energy Right wants to be the nonprofit that counties seek out.”

Roughly 6% of Virginia’s electricity comes from the sun, according to Solar Energy Industries Association figures through 2022. 

To Zunk, that number falls woefully short.

“It’s an enormous opportunity to seize,” he said. “Virginia has to be producing more energy. We’re a net importer and we need to be an exporter.”

In addition to being Energy Right’s CEO, Zunk also serves as vice chair of the Virginia Solar Energy and Energy Storage Authority. The General Assembly created the entity in 2015 to promote the growth of solar.

Energy Right might be headquartered in Richmond, but that doesn’t confine Zunk, Cox and new hire Jacob Carasella, director of community outreach, to the capital city. The trio has fanned out across Virginia, visiting more than half of its 95 counties.

“We all have backgrounds in government service and politics and we’re using those skills to educate folks,” Zunk said, joking that his own team’s steepest learning curve centered on vehicle wear and tear.

“Because of all the driving we do, we figured out that we have to put oil change reminders on our calendars so we don’t forget.”

In an interview with the Energy News Network, Zunk elaborated on what he wants Energy Right to accomplish. This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: First off, what is Energy Right trying to accomplish?

A: We want to give residents, businesses and leaders in rural communities the tools and the information they need to make sound decisions about clean energy projects.

Solar uses large amounts of land and it’s being added at a very healthy clip. Very rarely have boards of supervisors in localities voted on clean energy projects before. 

Our goal is making sure they are well-attuned to the facts because nobody is served well by misinformation.

Q: Property rights, economic development, energy security and energy independence are the four pillars of your organization. What’s your pitch on economic development, especially where large arrays have become lightning rods?

A: There are so many ways to address economic development. For one, the microeconomic story is that these projects are very, very frequently on private land. Those landowners have every right to benefit economically from a long-term lease for an array or a storage project. That can be income for a farmer and a way to diversify a farming operation.

Developers invest millions of dollars into these projects at all levels, whether it’s for planning or constructing. We encourage solar developers that provide engineering, procurement and construction, and owner-operators to use local service providers and goods. For example, a landlord in rural Lunenburg County told me she has grown her business because the best clientele for her two rental properties are people working on local solar projects.

The last bucket answers the question, “What’s in it for me?” Large solar projects generate an incredible amount of local taxes. That helps the county invest in schools, first responders and other services. Some counties are using tax revenue from solar projects to lower taxes for residents.

Q: Some counties were caught off guard when large-scale solar arrays began booming in rural Virginia five or so years ago and scrambled to draft or update ordinances. Fear of “losing” farmland prompted some localities to pass moratoriums or severe restrictions. Is there merit to that reaction?

A: Our perspective is that solar is a very new land use coming to many, many counties. As with anything new, folks have a lot of questions. 

They ask about the impact on the farm economy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people comment that “Solar is destroying our farmland” or “You can’t eat solar panels.”

It is a legitimate concern but we emphasize that we’re not losing any farmland. Instead, it is being converted into a new use that a landowner wants to pursue. 

In 2022, Virginia lost a net of zero acres of farmland, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced a record number of agriculture exports.

There’s definitely an anti-solar trend out there opposing solar. The idea of encouraging a moratorium pains me. Something will have to be done if a trend continues with bans or too many restrictions on solar projects.

Q: How does Energy Right navigate the property rights angle? 

A: We do our best to reason with folks and have an honest genuine conversation. Our message is that landowners have a right to use their property as they see fit as long as they’re not adversely affecting neighbors. 

Nobody is forcing a landowner to accept a solar project because eminent domain isn’t used for these projects. Signing what’s usually a 30-year lease is completely up to the landowner. It’s their choice and we figure they know their land better than anybody else.

Landowners need to be respectful. We want solar policies that encourage these projects to be the best neighbors possible.

Q: What are the top three investments a solar developer should consider so an array, especially a giant one, qualifies as a good neighbor?

A: Number one is setbacks and buffers from a property line. We don’t want a homeowner to open a door and be 25 feet away from a solar panel. Panels must be well-screened behind natural or planted vegetation.

Number two is community engagement. The onus is on the developer to be involved with neighbors. That means having boots on the ground and answering all questions. That involvement can dictate how a project will be received.

Number three is being a longtime partner to the communities hosting these projects even though a solar lease might be a temporary use of the land.

Q: Since last August, you’ve traveled to 51 of Virginia’s 95 counties. How do you settle on destinations?

A: It’s us three and our goal is to be in every locality where clean energy conversations are taking place. We’re trying to be absolutely everywhere. It takes a lot of networking and keeping up with stakeholders.

We monitor news stories across the state. Sometimes county governments are just thinking about solar ordinances for the first time. Other times, we’re in places where supervisors have sited many projects and they have a deeper understanding.

As difficult and tense as some of these meetings can be, they also are rewarding because these important topics are worth talking about.

Q: Can you cite an example where Energy Right’s intervention educating has made a difference?

A: I don’t know that we’re changing hearts and minds but we are introducing a new perspective. 

We were very happy with a February event in Nottoway County (in the Southside region of the state) where we invited community leaders, the Chamber of Commerce and residents to a local hotel for a Solar 101 event. We had 85 to 90 attendees. Folks came with a lot of questions and I’m confident they left with answers. 

We had environmental engineers and representatives from the SHINE (Solar Hands-on Instructional Network of Excellence) job-training program and the South-Central Virginia Business Alliance on hand to provide additional education.

County leaders had been on the fence for a year about a solar ordinance and we were gently encouraging them to move forward. 

It motivated us to start a blueprint so we can organize similar events across Virginia. We can be a megaphone for solar policies and projects that counties have adopted.

Q: Are there specific actions the General Assembly or state agencies could take so solar is more welcomed in wary communities?

A: I’m not sure any action needs to be taken. One change we never want to see is the state taking away zoning and permitting rights from localities. That has been suggested in Virginia and has happened in other states. That would be bad. Once the state takes that power from local governments, it will never give it back.

The state needs to understand that every county is its own little microcosm with its own land use requirements.

Q: A Charlottesville nonprofit, the Community Climate Collaborative, recently issued a Solar Scorecard that offers developers environmental justice guidance. Has Energy Right thought about offering a similar template?

A: We’ve thought very hard about a scorecard. We had a draft ready to go but ultimately, we decided against it because it requires a lot of staff time and would put us in the position of judging projects.

Instead, what we’re pursuing is a model county ordinance that would make a solar project a good neighbor. We’re not saying one tool fits all because a 500-acre one is much different from a 30-acre one. It’s a tool we could put out there for communities to see how to strike a balance with standards.

Q: What’s the most difficult lesson you’ve learned thus far?

A: I’m slowly learning that not everyone is open-minded and willing to consider new information. It’s frustrating. Some people are ideologically opposed to clean energy in their communities and there’s very little we can do to change that.

Q: In 2019, when you graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington did you anticipate becoming so well-versed in solar energy?

A: No, I never anticipated founding a nonprofit like this one. Both of my parents are nurses. I enrolled in college planning to be a doctor. That didn’t work out and I ended up majoring in politics. A few years later, this opportunity kind of fell into my lap, and it’s such a cool one.

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