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Planners back solar farm in Crystal Hill / November 27, 2017
The Halifax County Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to recommend a solar energy facility on 629 acres in Crystal Hill, but the project’s future may hinge on the willingness of the Board of Supervisors to ease the retirement costs over the project’s lifespan.

Maryland-based Urban Grid Solar is seeking to install a 65-megawatt solar energy facility on land on the south side of Crystal Hill Road (Route 610) near the intersection with Woodchuck Trail. Planners recommended the issuance of a conditional use permit for the $80 million project, which is expected to create 160 temporary, local construction jobs and generate a net tax benefit to the county of $61,000 in the first year, with continued benefits over the life of the project.

Ultimate approval rests with the Board of Supervisors, which has set a Dec. 4 public hearing to consider Urban Solar’s permit request. At their meeting Nov. 21, planners also conducted a public hearing; no one among a sparse crowd stepped forward to speak.

Representing Urban Solar before the planners was Roger Bowers, an attorney for the company. County Planner Detrick Easley opened the public hearing with an acknowledgement that Urban Grid had met all criteria for the first part of its application for a conditional use permit.

Bowers spent most of his time explaining the workings of solar power and extolling the potential benefits of the Crystal Hill project, but he also made a request: for the county to amend a part of its new solar energy ordinance that pertains to the decommissioning of projects at the end of their useful life.

According to Bowers, the county ordinance is written in such a way as to require Urban Solar and other developers to put up an excessive amount of security — typically a bond or letter of credit — over the life of the project. In Urban Solar’s case, that requirement could mean spending some $900,000 to guarantee decommissioning work that is likely to cost around $2-$3 million, said Bowers.

The provision “makes the Crystal Hill project cost prohibitive and a no-go for Urban Grid,” he said.

None of the other projects Urban Grid is seeking to build elsewhere has encountered requirements as onerous as those imposed by the Halifax County ordinance, Bowers added.

As currently written, the county ordinance would require Urban Grid to post a $2 million bond for 30 years.

In all likelihood, Bowers argued, the net cost of decommissioning the facility will be much different than the upfront costs, since the labor expense of removing solar fields is offset by the salvage value of equipment: the panels themselves, plus steel, aluminum, wiring and frames. Bowers said the decommissioning of solar facilities can create a positive cash flow for companies.

“All business models reflect a net positive result, which means that the decommissioning plan itself becomes an asset,” Bowers said. To illustrate, Bowers used a certified decommissioning plan prepared for Apple. In that project, the removal cost was estimated at $560,000 and the salvage value at $1 million, creating a benefit for the tech giant.

Bowers requested a minimum security of $20,000-$25,000, which would be renewed or adjusted every five years as required by the county ordinance. This money would cover any administrative costs should Urban Grid not be around to finish the decommissioning. But Bowers explained that even if Urban Grid filed for bankruptcy, the court would insist that the decommissioning asset be realized.

He also reminded planners that they could, at any time, demand increased security under the ordinance.

The county’s current requirements pose a significant hurdle for Urban Solar, acknowledged Easley.

“Using this scenario, and given the certainty that this will be the case, Urban Grid will have to maintain a bond for 30 years at a cost of $900,000 with no return of value to them,” Easley said.

Commission chairman Jim Davis suggested the subject could be raised again at the Dec. 4 public hearing of the Board of Supervisors.

Other concerns that were voiced during the planning meeting included:

» R. T. Waller asked about training for first responders in the event of an emergency. Bowers assured him that Urban Grid provides no-cost, comprehensive training to all first responders responsible for the safety of the solar farm.

» J. Hudson Reese expressed apprehension about the groundcover choices in the submitted construction plans, prompting a discussion about grasses and pollinator-friendly plants that Urban Grid proposes to use. Reese said some of the proposed groundcover “raised a red flag for him due to maintenance and wildlife.” Bowers promised the commissioners that Urban Grid would sit down with them to explore acceptable options.

» Bowers allowed that he has received one letter of opposition to the project — from an attorney on behalf of Budd Capps, an adjacent landowner. According to the attorney, Capps would be required to pay Mecklenburg Electric $18,000 to install electricity, a service he claims he used to have on the property but Mecklenburg Electric discontinued. Efforts to reach the attorney or Caps have been unsuccessful.

Of the 629 acres that would be dedicated to the project, some 300 would contain solar panels, installed at five different areas. The electricity produced by the panels would be fed directly to a transmission line.

Because Crystal Hill, LLC is not a certified service corporation, and cannot sell energy on the retail market, a wholesaler will be responsible for managing the distribution of the 65 megawatts of power generated.

Bowers reviewed the results of an Oct. 24 community meeting held on the project at Clays Mill Elementary, attended by only a handful of interested residents. Comments generally turned to the impact of solar farms on nearby property values. Bowers shared the results of a report done by a certified appraiser in North Carolina, reflecting no change in property values, up or down, for residential properties adjacent to a solar farm.

In other business, planners unanimously recommended approval of a conditional use permit application for a submitted by Bruce Caldwell Stevens for a gun shop on property located at 110189 L.P. Bailey Memorial Highway, and owned by John and Thelma Stevens

According to Easley, the conditional use permit allows Stevens to operate a gun sales and cleaning shop in an 18 x 24 building one day per week by appointment, and Saturdays from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

No comments, for or against, were sent to the Planning and Zoning Department, nor did anyone show up to speak for or against the proposed application.

December public hearings set for two solar projects

At their next regular meeting on December 19, the Planning Commission will hold public hearings for two other proposed solar farms in Halifax County.

Urban Grid submitted a second application for a 502 acre, 80-megawatt facility located on Alton Post Office Road (Route 711) between Mt. Carmel Road and Mill Pond Road. A community meeting for this project is set for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 29, at the Turbeville Ruritan Club located at 1040 Melon Road in South Boston.

Carolina Solar submitted an application for a 340 acre, 51-megawatt facility on Clays Mill Road at Vaughan Lane.

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