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More time needed on solar plans, supes say / December 07, 2017
The Halifax County Board of Supervisors kicked the can down the road Monday night on a request by Urban Grid Solar to build a 65-megawatt solar farm in the Crystal Hill area, the first of a half-dozen proposed solar farms in the county to come up for approval by the board.

Supervisors indicated they need more time to consider Urban Grid’s request for a change to the county’s solar ordinance to lessen the upfront costs of decommissioning the solar array once it reaches the end of its useful life.

Representatives complain Urban Grid will have to post some $900,000 over a span of decades to pay for decommissioning a roughly $2 million facility. That’s because the county ordinance makes no allowance for the salvage value of the solar panels, metal framework and other materials that can be sold off once the solar farms are retired and dismantled, the company says.

While Urban Grid’s application for a conditional use permit is the first such request to come before supervisors for consideration, the company’s concerns would appear to be shared by other solar developers that are eyeing operations in Halifax County.

Among the speakers at a Monday night public hearing in Halifax was an industry consultant, George J. Retschle, who was invited by three companies — Cypress Creek Solar, Carolina Solar Power, and Geenex — to speak on some of the concerns that have been raised with solar power, including what happens once the projects reach the end of their lifespans.

Retschle said Urban Grid’s concerns about bonding costs are legitimate, and argued the company should be allowed to count salvage values against the cost of project decommissioning. The metal alone used in a solar array has considerable value. “The panels are sitting on stacks of $100 bills,” said Retschle.

Chairman Dennis Witt said supervisors were not ready to approve the application for the Crystal Hill solar farm because they are not yet comfortable with the decommissioning plan, and would like to have the full picture before giving a green light to utility-scale solar energy in Halifax County. The decommissioning plan will serve as a model for all other solar projects, including the six applications already on file.

But Wit also offered some encouragement to solar industry representatives at the meeting: “There has been a lot of work done on this project, and we are about to finish.”

The decision to table Urban Grid’s conditional use permit application — filed under the name of Crystal Hill Solar, encompassing a 629-acre spread on Crystal Hill Road (Route 610) near Woodchuck Trail — came after the Maryland-based developer first aired its objections to the wording of the solar ordinance with the county Planning Commission.

That discussion, at a Nov. 21 planners meeting, ended with commission chairman Jim Davis suggesting that it would be up to the board of supervisors to determine if the solar ordinance should be rewritten.

At Monday’s meeting of the board of supervisors, Witt summed up the issues that members should consider.

“The question is what is it [the solar farm] worth at the end of 25 years; what is the salvage value after 25 years; who is going to come and take it [the solar farm] out after 25 years; how much is it [solar farm] is going to cost; and how much do we want to set aside to protect the county to avoid leaving a mess — clean it up, carry it off, and put land back to its original state.”

Witt suggested that, because costs are difficult to establish, he is looking for more data from Urban Solar to help bring things into focus for the Board.

County planner Detrick Easley opened the public hearing with a review of the proposed solar farm, as well as Urban Grid’s request for a modification to the ordinance. Easley recommended that the supervisors deny Urban Grid’s request, and require the posting of a bond to cover the full, no-offset cost of decommissioning the project.

Before considering an amendment to the ordinance, Easley suggested supervisors should require Urban Grid to submit a decommissioning cost estimate for the Crystal Hill project, prepared by a certified engineer, to the planning commission for review.

Roger Bowers, an attorney representing Urban Grid, asked the board to accept a formula for determining the cost of decommissioning the facility that was submitted with the company’s conditional use permit application in December 2016. That process takes into account the salvage value of the equipment when calculating decommissioning costs.

Bowers agreed to the idea of presenting a decommissioning cost estimate from a certified engineer, and said Urban Grid would go a step further by gathering pricing information from salvage companies on the scrap value of solar facilities.

“This facility, once installed, is a positive asset, and we are prepared to provide information to back that up,” he said.

Retschle, president of Ballentine Associates, P.A., a Chapel Hill, N.C. civil engineering firm, concurred with Bowers’ view that the cost of removing the solar farm is a fraction of the total salvage value. Witt asked Retschle if he had a salvage company that would back that claim. Retschle responded, “Not really.”

ED-1 supervisor J. T. Davis noted that Halifax County reviewed solar ordinances from several counties in North Carolina and Virginia, all of which require decommissioning plans. Davis said the decision to delay approval of Urban Grid’s application was justified by the need to further study North Carolina ordinances, plus other information that Urban Grid has offered to submit. “We have one chance to get this right — best to put it off,” Davis said.

Another concern that has been raised with solar farms — what type of pollinator plants should be used as a buffer around the facilities — are less applicable to Urban Grid’s designs for the Crystal Hill project. Easley said the pollinator requirements are a small issue that can be quickly resolved in this instance.

Davis said the county is on top of the pollinator issue. A wildlife habitat sub-committee met on the topic last Thursday; members include Jim Ziegler with the Beekeeper’s Association, Hudson Reese from the planning commission, and Rick Brown, a soil and water conservation committee representative.

Michael Cole, an attorney representing adjacent landowner Bud Capps, complained that Capps has received no consideration or cooperation from the solar companies, and that all attempts to make contact with them have failed. Cole wanted to have “developers set aside money or come up with a plan where they help landowners add value to their land.”

In a subsequent conversation, Cole clarified that, based on anecdotal evidence, the real issue is fear of depressed land prices. Cole is now in possession of the land value impact report prepared for Urban Grid, which he will review with his client.

Weldon Anderson, a Halifax farmer, told the supervisors that he believed putting up a $2 million [bond] should not be a problem for a developer.

A motion was made to table the discussion until a later date, with no specific timeframe. The motion carried by a unanimous vote.

In other business, Witt asked county planners to cancel the next two public hearings for the Alton Post Office Solar Project being developed by Urban Grid, and the Waterstrider project in the Nathalie area being developed by Cypress Creek Solar.

According to Witt, it would not be appropriate for county planners to consider two more applications when the board has not finished with the first one. “We will reset the hearing dates later on,” Witt said.

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