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Alton solar farm draws concerns by neighbors / December 04, 2017
“This project, if built, will generate enough electricity to power 14,500 homes and replace 315,000 barrels of oil and 150 million pounds of coal — every year.”

That was the message Urban Grid project manager James Crawford, Jr. delivered to dozens of Nathalie-area residents and landowners at a community meeting last Wednesday night at the Turbeville Ruritan Club, where they came for a chance to ask questions and voice concerns about the proposed Alton Post Office Road Solar project.

Urban Grid Solar has submitted a conditional use permit application to Halifax County to build an 80-megawatt, 500-acre solar farm situated on two parcels with a total of 600 acres, located on Alton Post Office Road (Route 711) between Mt. Carmel Road and Mill Pond Road.

Crawford gave a three-part presentation beginning with a tutorial on how solar works. To emphasize the technology’s reliability, he said, “We’re using technology that is 50 years old, but plants have been doing this for eons — collecting sunlight and turning it into energy.”

Next, he explained Urban Grid’s efforts to-date on the Alton Post Office Solar project, which include identifying the land parcels, entering into an agreement with the landowner, starting the 12-18 month process to obtain an interconnection permit with PJM, the solar grid management company for 13 states, including Virginia, and submitting an application to Halifax County for a conditional use permit.

Finally, Crawford reviewed details of the project itself, including placement of panels and proposed vegetation to form a buffer between the solar farm and nearby residents. He expressed hope that the project would go “live” by 2019 or 2020.

County officials in attendance included: Detrick Easley, planning and zoning administrator, Rosemary Ramsey, planning commissioner ED-6, Jim Halasz, county administrator, Larry Giordano, ED-6 supervisor, and Stanley Brandon, the district’s supervisor-elect.

Of the 18 questions asked during the 70-minute meeting, half came from adjoining landowner Ann Yancey, who attended with her husband Robert. Yancey’s home is situated directly across from the proposed solar farm, separated only by a farm access road.

Among her concerns:

» Is there a test period to measure any “side effects” of the project.

Crawford assured her that similar solar farms have been built all over the United States and overseas. Solar farms don’t create noise or give off emissions, and don’t contain any hazardous materials. In addition, scrutiny of these projects is extremely high at both the local and state levels, he said.

» Would zoning change to commercial due to the solar farm.

Urban Grid has applied for a Conditional Use Permit that is valid only for the life of the project — the underlying agricultural zone does not change.

» Does Dominion have an interest in the project.

Crawford explained that Dominion can either own the solar facility or enter into a power purchase agreement. With this project, Urban Grid will own the facility and sell the power to a third-party distrubutor.

» When Dominion purchases power, does that affect customer power costs.

The SEC has a stringent set of rules that govern utilities, including pricing. Crawford assured her that once the SEC sets rates, they are frozen — Dominion cannot raise rates due to alternate energy purchases.

» Yancey had serious concerns about the health effects of electric magnetic fields associated with solar panels as well as chemical emissions.

According to Crawford, the solar farm does not increase the electric magnetic field over what already exists. The transmission power line produces very low EMF — everything operates at 33-1/2 KV.

» Additional roads being built

The entrance to one of the parcels is right across from Yancey’s house. Crawford said that when construction is finished, all she will see is a gate with a gravel entrance.

» Traffic due to ongoing maintenance

After construction, the panels are remotely monitored, explained Crawford. The panels are very low maintenance and reliable, but if one needs repair, someone will be sent out — there will not be any ongoing traffic.

» The approval process

Crawford explained that Urban Grid is scheduled to appear before the planning commission on Dec. 19. This is a public hearing where community concerns can be raised. The next step is to appear before the Board of Supervisors in January — another public hearing where the community can weigh in. If Halifax County approves Urban Grid’s application, the county will issue them the conditional use permit. The next step is navigating all state requirements.

Among the concerns voiced by other meeting attendees:

» One landowner wanted to know if other solar farms would be built in Halifax County — his concern being preservation of farmland.

“The beauty of this is that solar is not the last crop,” said Crawford. Once the facility is removed the land will return to its previous use — this is the best land preservation, he said. Crawford also mentioned the density clause in the Halifax County Solar Ordinance which limits solar development to five percent of land mass.

Easley mentioned that the county was working with another developer on a project situated very close to the proposed Alton Post Office Solar grid.

» An adjacent landowner who lives 80 feet from the proposed solar field questioned the setbacks.

Roger Bowers, attorney for Urban Grid, explained the setback provisions in the ordinance — 75 feet for right of way and 25 feet from adjacent properties. He also said a required buffer would block the view.

» A question about security was raised, that is ensuring someone does not come along and steal the panels or wiring.

During construction, said Crawford, all materials will be kept under lock and key. Once complete, a six foot chain link fence with barbed wire at the top will surround the panels.

» Due to the occasional extreme weather, one landowner wanted to know if Urban Grid insures their projects.

Crawford confirmed that Urban Grid fully ensures all projects, and that the panels are tested to withstand 135 mph winds. Bowers joked that he heard baseballs are fired at the panels to test durability.

In addition to insurance, solar panel manufacturers offer a warranty. In a later conversation, Crawford said that the typical warranty period is 25 years. After the warranty expires, the facility owner is responsible for any equipment replacement needed.

Urban Grid Solar, with offices in Richmond and Annapolis, Md., submitted two Conditional Use applications for solar farms in Halifax County.

The Alton Post Office Road Solar project is an 80-megawatt, 500-acre facility, on Alton Post Office Road at the intersection with Hendricks Road, and the Crystal Hill Road project is a 65-megawatt, 629-acre facility planned for Crystal Hill Road near the intersection with Woodchuck Road.

In a subsequent discussion with Crawford, he talked about potential jobs. “The construction will take between eight-12 months generating a need for about 300 construction workers,” Urban Grid will hire a contractor who will likely hold a job fair to attract applicants. The preference is usually for local workers who don’t require a living stipend or housing. Crawford also said that there will be a need for eight-10 permanent workers.

Crawford said he is passionate about what he does: “I wake up every morning, look at my four-month old son, and know that I will leave the world a better place for him.”

The Halifax County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing for the Alton Post Office Solar project on Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. in Public Meeting Room 201 of the Mary Bethune Office Complex.

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