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Solar farms draw interest, questions

South Boston News South Boston News / November 13, 2017
80-megawatt ‘Water Strider Project’ eyed for Nathalie area

Dozens of Nathalie-area residents and landowners packed the North Halifax Fire Department Thursday night for a chance to ask questions and voice concerns at a community meeting organized by Cypress Creek Renewables and Geenex Solar.

Cypress Creek Renewables and Geenex Solar have submitted a permit application to Halifax County to build an 80-megawatt, 960-acre solar farm known as the “Water Strider Project” at 1100 Jenny’s Ruff Trail in Nathalie.

Skeptical residents and landowners peppered the group with a barrage of questions about land values, environmental protection, health risks, and job creation over 90 minutes.

Several attendees thought the project already had a green light, but Will Shumate, attorney for Cypress Creek, said no — and explained that the community meeting was “a first step in a very long approval process.”

Kara Price, development director for Geenex, added that when and if the company clears the hurdle of Halifax County’s new solar ordinance, the project will require state and federal approval.

Supervisors chairman Dennis Witt, and ED-1 supervisors J.T. Davis, shared highlights of the newly enacted Halifax County Solar Ordinance. Everyone was urged to go online to review the details. Davis assured listeners that the ordinance required two public hearings — prior to Planning Commission approval and again before the Board of Supervisors enacted the ordinance.

Geenex Solar last week received approval from Mecklenburg County to build a 913-acre solar array on pastureland outside of Chase City. Halifax County patterned its solar ordinance after the one in place in Mecklenburg.

Among the concerns aired by audience members at the Nathalie meeting:

» One landowner asked why Halifax County and the 960-acre parcel in question were chosen. Price and Parker Sloan, project manager for Cypress Creek Renewables, described the importance of site selection.

Sloan said that Halifax County has excellent parcels of flat land near transmission lines with adequate capacity. Multiple parcels had been scrutinized before selecting the current one.

» Speakers had job creation on their mind. Sloan assured everyone that, when possible, local labor would be used in building the industrial-scale solar farm. Competitive bids for land prep will be requested, and there will be ample need for electricians and construction workers, Sloan assured the audience.

He added that, based on their experience to date, a robust job market for solar jobs in Virginia and North Carolina is assured. Shumake added, “In 2016, one out of every 50 [new] jobs were in solar energy.”

» Landowners with property next to the selected parcel expressed concern about devaluation of their land. Price said that studies show this should not be a concern. Licensed appraisers have appraised land before and after installation of a solar farm and found no change to land values.

Price added that solar farms are low impact and quiet. Solar is the only energy source that permits land to be returned to its original use once the panels are removed.

Eddie Austin, whose land is adjacent to the proposed solar farm, worried he will take a financial hit. “No one ever said that they dreamed of building a home next to a solar farm,” he said. “My land is part of my retirement program.”

Company officials had little to say in response, but Witt said, “Maybe it [the solar farm] will [devalue his property] and perhaps it won’t. If the land is used as a farm — not so much, but for residential use it might.”

» Environmental impact, including on streams and wildlife, and the prospect of pollution concerned all present. Price reiterated that solar was as low impact as you could get. Also, as part of the permitting process, environmental impact studies are required at the county, state, and federal levels.

» Several landowners said Cypress Creek and Geenex would make money on the project, as would the owner of the selected parcel and the county, but they wondered what the average man would get out of it.

Shumake explained that the Water Strider Project represents a long-term investment in the community, and that many large companies when looking to expand want to know that green energy is available. Kara mentioned that Facebook recently chose Henrico County to build a billion-dollar facility, and Microsoft, which has a massive cloud computing center in Mecklenburg, is committed to powering its facilities 100 percent with renewable energy sources.

In a recent statement, Rachel Peterson, Facebook’s director of data center strategy said, “One of the many important factors in our search for a new data center location is being able to source clean and renewable energy.”

» Some questioned the economics of solar when compared to the cost of traditional energy sources, and worried the higher expense would be passed on to the local community. Price talked about the cost of solar dropping significantly in the past few years. In addition, unlike fossil fuels, power companies can lock in rates for 20-25 years — there is no market fluctuation to worry about.

» Adjoining property owners to the selected parcel wondered why they were not asked to participate in the venture. In the same vein, several questioned the development of one large installation that benefits only one person instead of developing multiple smaller projects that benefit many more in the community.

Sloan said the project partners believe they had all the land they need at the moment, but opportunities may exist for future projects. As to creating smaller facilities instead of one large one, Price said there are economies of scale with equipment purchases and large utilities negotiate payment based on the total energy generated from a farm.

» Health risks like radiation or other harmful emissions were brought up. Price assured everyone that solar panels they use give off no emissions. The panels are made of silicon and glass absent chemicals of any kind.

» Davis fielded several questions about cleanup at the end of the project and disposal of the solar panels. He said that the county’s ordinance requires the posting of a bond to cover the cost of cleanup should the company fail to do so.

Shumake said the solar panels have significant recycle value and would be hauled away.

» For everyone, the aesthetics of the solar farm prompted concerns. Several people asked questions about fencing and cover for the solar field.

According to Sloan, a perimeter fence at least six feet high will be installed around the project. Davis explained that Halifax County’s ordinance requires trees and plants for a 15-foot wide buffer area around the fencing.

Cypress Creek offered to show anyone interested a list of the proposed plants for the buffer area.

» Additional concerns were raised about setbacks, density, streams, access for firefighters, and stability of slopes. Witt and Davis said that all of these issues are addressed in the Halifax County Solar Ordinance.

If built, the Water Strider solar farm will supply enough clean energy to power about 15,000 homes annually, and generate more than $6.8 million in local tax revenue over the 35-year life of the project.

Cypress Creek Renewables, LLC develops, finances, builds, and operates solar power projects in the United States. They are the second largest solar developer in the United States, with over $2 billion raised and invested and over 5 gigawatts of local solar farms deployed or in development.

Geenex Solar, based in Charlotte, N.C., is a developer of utility-scale solar projects. Responsibilities include land acquisition, site analysis, environmental assessments, facility permitting, utility interconnection and power purchase agreements.

Landowners airs concerns on Cluster Springs array

Cypress Creek and Cooperative Solar, partners in the proposed venture, had representatives on hand at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center to answer questions from nearby landowners about the project, which would generate enough electricity to power 3,300 homes.

According to Parker Sloan of Cypress Creek, only about 50 to 60 acres of the 180-site will actually contain solar panels. The remainder of the land will be used to serve as a buffer separating the facility from nearby landowners.

Also, there are seven or more areas in the parcel that are wetlands, which must be left intact and which will have to be buffered from the surrounding parcel.

Neighboring property owners, who were identified by Cypress Creek and sent notices informing them about the community meeting, offered a number of questions at Thursday’s meeting.

Among those in attendance were M.C. Day and Roger Slagle, both of whom own homes on Huell Matthews Highway across from the planned solar farm. Each wanted to find out as much as they could about what to expect if a permit for the project is approved by supervisors.

They were anxious to learn what the area will look like and what they will be able to see from their homes once the solar installation is built. Both also wanted to know what will happen in 30 or 40 years when the effective life of the solar farm comes to an end.

Jim Zeigler, another local resident, also attended the meeting to urge the company to plant pollinator- and wildlife-friendly native plants to serve as buffer around the solar farm. County Planner Detrick Easley said he needs to see exact plans from the developers to show what the buffered areas will contain.

Before any permit is approved, public hearings will be held before both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will have to be held, giving residents ample opportunity to share their concerns.

Cypress Creek has completed about 43 solar projects in North Carolina since 2015. The company is also partnering with another firm to build a much-larger solar farm in the Nathalie area.

Sloan, a regional zoning manager for the California-based firm, said Halifax County has approved a very thorough and complete ordinance regulating solar farms.

Cullen Morris with Cooperative Solar, based in Durham, N.C., added that the income received by local landowners from solar developers will allow them to retain ownership of their properties rather than having to sell their land because it generates no income.

This project is expected to connect with Dominion Electric Supply and should create about 28 local jobs during the construction period, which is expected to take about nine months after a permit is approved, Sloan said.

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