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Ag interests weigh impact of solar farms / January 16, 2019

With the possibility of four utility-scale solar energy projects locating in Mecklenburg County, county supervisors, farmers and others debated their benefits during a meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors agriculture committee Tuesday night in South Hill.

Three utility scale farms were approved in 2018 for the Chase City area: the Bluestone and Otter Creek projects on Spanish Grove Road, and the Grasshopper facility near the intersection of Highways 47 and 49. Approval of a fourth project — the Ladybug solar array, at the corner of Highway 903 and Redlawn Road near Bracey — remains pending.

Supervisor Jim Jennings, who chairs the agriculture committee, called solar energy “a topic that 50 percent of the people hate and 50 percent dearly love.” He said the goal of the committee meeting was educational and to “see what directions the members wanted to go in as it related to the county’s position on solar farms.”

John Puvac, a land use attorney with the consulting law firm of Gentry Locke Rakes, gave an overview of the rise of utility-scale solar energy in Virginia, which he said was spurred by tax changes implemented by the General Assembly in 2015.

Solar developers find Mecklenburg County attractive as a home for their projects, according to Puvac, because of the intersection of major transmission lines, the low cost of land, and the large tracts of open areas once used for farming and grazing. “These farms have no storage capacity. They are driving this. The power they generate [in this area] goes right into the grid. This [cheap, open farmland near major transmission lines] makes a big difference in terms of cost,” said Puvac.

Under the county’s solar ordinance, the Board of Supervisors can decide whether to allow large-scale utility projects to tie up existing farmland for upwards of 20 years. Puvac added that the county’s decision-making process should take into consideration the rights of property owners to use their land as they see fit.

Members of the committee came down on both sides of the debate on whether to allow more solar farms. Supervisor Gregg Gordon said he wanted Mecklenburg to consider ways to “make them happen,” if development can be handled responsibly. David Jones, a farm representative on the committee, was neutral on the issue and said he was more focused on the importance of allowing property owners to control what happens on their land. Other panel members — Mark Warren, David Brankley and Kyle Crump — worried about the loss of county farmland to solar development.

Jennings, who like Brankley is both a county supervisor and farmer, wondered aloud if Mecklenburg should cap the number of solar farms or the amount of acreage dedicated to the projects, such as places like Culpeper County have done.

Most members of the ag committee agreed they need to know more about decommissioning, the process of restoring lands taken up by solar farms to their prior condition at the end of the projects’ useful lifespans.

In 2017, the county adopted what Puvac called “a robust plan” for decommissioning solar facilities that requires developers to put money in escrow for land restoration costs. The escrow funds will protect the county and the land tracts themselves if the solar operator doesn’t do, down the road, what they promised. The amount of the escrow is dependent on the size of the farm. It is reevaluated every five years.

With the rapid change in ownership of solar farms that is already occurring — even before construction begins — several members of the committee worried about the sufficiency of current escrow provisions. Their concerns included: not knowing who is going to own the project, whether there will be any use for the equipment, who’s going to be around to oversee the decommissioning of land to its prior state, and what happens at end of a solar farm’s useful life or if the solar panels are destroyed by natural disaster.

County Administrator Wayne Carter said most solar farm developers argue that their decommissioning costs should be reduced to reflect the salvage value of materials once the farm reaches the end of its useful life. Carter said there are two problems with this claim: First, recycling centers for dismantled solar arrays go not currently exist, and second, solar panels can contain heavy metals that are considered hazardous and cannot be disposed of in a landfill.

William Hase, a Program Engineer with Draper Aden Associates and landfill consultant to the county, recently submitted a report noting that some types and brands of solar panels contain arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium and lead, all of which are considered toxic. While each panel may only contain trace amounts of these materials, in mass, they could pollute groundwater or soil beds. The existence of heavy metals in their composition is the main reason they cannot be dumped in the county landfill.

Supervisors Chairman Glenn Barbour said he was more concerned about the amount of money each solar developer places in escrow to cover their decommissioning costs. With the uncertainties of ownership as well as financial viability at the end of a solar farm’s useful life, escrow payments should be made in cash, Barbour said.

Most companies would balk at this idea, Barbour was told. This prompted David Jones to suggest that Mecklenburg County should require an “evergreen letter of credit,” a letter of credit that rolls over for an indefinite period until the issuing bank informs the beneficiary — the county — of its final expiration.

No conclusion was reached about the best formula for setting the dollar mounts for decommissioning escrow accounts. Jennings and Carter promised to work with supervisors and members of the county planning commission on the matter.

On a separate note, Carter pointed out that at the end of their useful life, these farms do not produce much tax revenue for local governments due to depreciation. “So how do you pay for things like schools?” Carter asked rhetorically, after predicting that Mecklenburg County would see more solar farm applications in the coming months.

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