CHATHAM — The Pittsylvania County Planning Commission unanimously voted Thursday night to recommend approval of a special use permit for another solar project, bringing it a step closer to becoming the ninth approved project in the county. The next step is the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals.
The special use permit extends 365 acres and crosses five parcels of land located on Va. 620 in Axton. The proposed 66-megawatt facility, which will be owned and operated by Virginia-based renewable energy company Caden Energix, will be split between Pittsylvania and Henry counties, with only about 25% of the requested land residing in Pittsylvania County.
Representing the project, John Ragone said the company hasn’t received much feedback from nearby residents. The closest homes are more than 2,000 feet from where the panels will sit and a large hill with tall pine trees separates the facility from the closest subdivision, according to Ragone.
“We don’t think that there will be a visual impact for these people,” he said.
The facility, which Energix intends to keep, is expected to be operational by 2021, Ragone said. They haven’t started the application process in Henry County yet.
The first and only county utility scale solar farm in operation is TPE Kentuck Solar LLC, a 6-megawatt facility that provides power for Danville.
Danville Utilities also plans to connect to two other facilities — the 12-megawatt Ringgold project and the 10-megawatt Whitmell project — when they are completed in 2020.
“The solar farms are not a huge tax generator for Virginia localities,” said Greg Sides, assistant administrator for Pittsylvania County.
Projects with less than 20 megawatts — such as the 6-megawatt facility in Kentuck — are exempt from local taxation on machinery and tools, while those greater than 20 megawatts are 80% exempt.
The federal government offers a 30% investment tax credit, which also is known as the federal solar tax credit. Introduced in 2005, the credit, which doesn’t have a maximum value, allows builders to deduct 30% of the installation cost from federal taxes. Over the next three years, that 30% number will drop to 26%, then to 22% before remaining at 10% after that.
Virginia does not require localities to have ordinances for solar projects, but when they do, there are several recommended legal areas, including a decommissioning bond. Pittsylvania County has developed a 17-part ordinance for solar project applicants, which covers visuals, erosion and sediment control, as well as a bond to cover decommission costs.
Pittsylvania County requires two different bonds for applicants. The first is an erosion and sediment control bond, which is held by the county just until the site is stabilized, which can be a relatively short period of time, Sides said.
The decommissioning bond, on the other hand, is a much more long-term agreement that ensures that costs don’t fall onto the taxpayers if the facility closes down early.
“It’s to prevent it from being an abandoned relic in the future,” Sides said.
During the zoning process, a certified professional engineer provides an itemized estimate of how much decommission would cost, which is then the grant amount.
“We want to know exactly … so it’s broken down into some detail,” Sides said.
The bond amount varies based on size, as well as site requirements. For the Kentuck Solar Project, which sits on a 76-acre parcel of land, the required decommission bond was $947,698.
Even after the locality gives their approval for a solar project, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) still has to conduct its own permitting process. Based on the Small Renewable Energy Projects statute passed in 2009, the DEQ conducts a “permit by rule” approach based on 15 factors, said Mary Major, who works in the permitting office for renewable energy with the department.
“We have parameters in the law that dictate the resources that we evaluate,” she said.
Some of those areas include environmental assessments, certificates, approval and permits from other parties, and size requirements.
The Danville Farm solar project, owned by Strata Solar Services, LLC, is the only other Pittsylvania County project that has received a permit from the DEQ. Having received requests for more than 70 projects statewide — six of them in Pittsylvania County — the state agency expects to approve several more before the end of the year.
Large buyers have stepped in for two of the projects in recent months. In August, Amazon committed to purchasing a 50-megawatt project developed by Whitehorn Solar LLC that is expected to become operational next year. Located in the Banister and Callands-Gretna districts, the farm will power Amazon’s Web Service data centers.
Just last week, Dominion Energy announced it will buy the Maplewood Solar project, a 120-megawatt solar farm seven miles northwest of Chatham, which was developed by Open Road Renewables.
The Caden Energix solar project will have to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals before the applicant can apply for a permit from the DEQ.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.