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Community solar outlined at public sessions / April 14, 2021
Atlanta-based Dimension Renewable Energy is looking to take advantage of Virginia’s newly enacted community solar program by erecting two small scale projects in Mecklenburg County, one off Noblin Farm Road near Clarksville and another off Skipwith Road near Chase City.

Both facilities would produce five megawatts or less in electricity that would connect to the grid via existing power distribution lines owned and maintained by Dominion Energy.

Company officials held two public hearings, one in Chase City and the other in Clarksville last Thursday and Friday. Both meetings were sparsely attended.

Kieran Siao, director of development for Dimension Renewable Energy, said the difference between a community solar project and the utility-scale projects now under construction in Mecklenburg is more than size. Community solar is a shared solar project, generally built on smaller parcels of land. Customers in the community subscribe to shares of energy generated by the project, and in return receive savings on their utility bills.

Siao said customers who participate in the credit-sharing program will not have solar panels on their roofs, and they will save on electric costs, can opt in or out of the program at will, and pay no upfront costs for construction of the solar field.

Participating homeowners must currently receive power from Dominion Energy and have a credit score that meets the company’s financial fitness standard. Siao did not say what that score would be, as it will be fixed by Dominion Energy.

While these projects are referred to as “community solar,” Siao said they will cast “a wide net for subscribers.

As with utility scale solar projects, community solar fields must comply with Mecklenburg County’s existing zoning codes and comprehensive plan and providing a bond to cover decommissioning costs. They must also undergo Virginia’s permitting process that requires environmental, archeological and other evaluations of the site where the solar panels will be erected.

Daniel Langston, the landscape architect for the projects, is proposing to screen the field with a mix of maple, oak, red buds, serviceberry and evergreen trees that when first planted are at least six feet in height. The land under the panels will be planted with what Langston said were pollinator flowers and grasses — vegetation that attracts bees and butterflies.

These are not the first small-scale generation projects proposed for Mecklenburg County. In 2019 Inman Solar proposed a 5.01 megawatt solar array on a 33-acre site off Cow Road west of Clarksville on land owned by then-Supervisor Gregg Gordon and his family. That project was eventually scrapped by the developer, but not before receiving pushback from the neighbors who opposed its installation.

The solar panels installed at the fields are similar to those used in utility scale projects. They are made of silicon monocrystalline mixed with boron. Siao said the panels can sustain winds up to 140 mph, which is equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane.

The interest in community solar projects coincides with the State Corporation Commission’s (SCC) adoption of rules in late December that opened more opportunities for the development of small solar projects in Virginia that produce electricity to a shared group of subscribers.

Community solar allows a developer of a small-scale solar project to subscribe eligible customers to purchase a share of the output of the solar facility. The customer, through what the SCC calls “net metering,” gets a bill credit from their utility company, which must be Dominion Energy, for the energy being supplied by the shared solar program.

The introduction of shared solar programs results from legislation adopted during the 2020 session of the Virginia General Assembly.

Initially, there is a program cap on the level of shared solar that is permitted. The program is limited to the service territory of Dominion Energy Virginia.

The rules adopted by the SCC establish the procedures for becoming licensed as a subscriber organization (the owner of the solar project); registering with the utility company; and the standards the subscribing organization must follow when marketing and enrolling customers.

Key provisions include the following:

Initial: The maximum cumulative size of the shared solar program initially cannot exceed 150 MWs, at least 30 percent of which must be comprised of low-income customers.

Expanded: The program is to be expanded by 50 MWs (for a total program size of 200 MWs) upon satisfaction of the 30 percent requirement for low-income participation.

To qualify as a shared solar facility, the project must generate electricity by means of a solar photovoltaic device with capacity rating that does not exceed 5,000 kWs (AC), be located in the service territory of an investor-owned electric utility, be connected to the electric distribution grid serving the Commonwealth, have at least three (3) subscribers, have at least 40 percent of its capacity subscribed with subscribers of 25 kWs or less; and be located on a single parcel of land.

Construction of the solar project must be completed within a 24-month period.

Siao said the company will submit its plans and request a hearing with the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors within the next week and hopes to have permits in place by mid-summer.

Before any solar project can begin construction in Mecklenburg County, the developer must undergo a “2232 review” to determine if the project conforms to the guidelines set out in the county’s comprehensive plan and a second hearing to receive a special exception permit.

Project developer Dimension Renewable Energy was founded in 2018. Since then, the company has been involved in building 1,000 MW of solar and energy storage projects in more than 120 locations throughout the Southwest, Midwest and eastern United States.

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