CHATHAM — During the past few years, seven entities have applied for and received permits to operate utility-scale solar farms in Pittsylvania County.
On Tuesday night, the Pittsylvania County Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend the eighth to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
The 500-acre solar farm project from Sycamore Solar, LLC, based in Austin, Texas, would span across six parcels of land between the Banister and Callands-Gretna districts. The Board of Zoning Appeals will vote on the permit Aug. 13. The solar farm is expected to generate 42 megawatts annually — a megawatt can power about 160 houses for a year.
Many of the residents who spoke during the public hearing were excited about the extra income that leasing their land for the solar farm project would provide, allowing them to keep up with expenses and keep their land.
“We together feel like change is a good thing,” said farmer Billy Wyatt, whose land will be used as part of the project. “The Sycamore Solar project will provide certainty for our family to continue farming.”
Several residents expressed concern about noise and environmental problems.
“To me, this is a perfect neighbor. It just sits there,” Patrick Buckley of Open Road Renewables, parent company of Sycamore Solar.
To properly regulate solar farms, Pittsylvania County has developed a comprehensive ordinance with 17 requirements for utility-scale solar energy facilities.
In terms of visuals, the maximum height of the solar panels and any equipment is 15 feet. Another requirement is that the applicant shield the farm with shrubs and trees around the fencing.
Before construction, the applicant must receive approval on an erosion and sediment control plan. The entity also must provide annual training to fire departments for battery storage.
The county and the company also enter into a bond for the decommission process to ensure that the costs don’t fall onto the taxpayers if it is ever closed down. Sycamore Solar representatives said the farm should remain operational for as many as four decades.
Right now, the first and only county utility-scale solar farm in operation is TPE Kentuck Solar LLC, a 6-megawatt facility that provides power for the Danville Utilities.
Danville Utilities also will connect to the planned 12- megawatt Ringgold project and the 10-megawatt Whitmell project when they are completed in 2020.
One of Danville Utilities contracts, which provides 17% of the city’s energy, will expire Dec. 31, 2020. The city will use cheaper, 25-year contracts with the solar farms to replace about half of that energy, city utilities director Jason Grey said.
“Solar is cheaper than what market is, especially if we can provide it at a local level that’s connected to our distribution system,” Grey said.
The city will not own or be responsible for maintaining the solar farms.
Leon Griffin, who serves on the Board of Zoning Appeals, said thus far the board has not denied any solar farm permits. He and Greg Sides, assistant county administrator, said there has not been much opposition from the community.
“The biggest concern people have is the visual,” Griffin said.
Solar farms that generate less than 20 megawatts are exempt from local taxation on the solar collectors, and any farm that generates more than 20 megawatts is still 80% exempt from local taxes.
“The solar farms are not a huge tax generator for Virginia localities,” Sides said.
The primary tax benefit will come from the zoning changes, he added, which will yield significantly more property taxes.
No state or county level incentives have been offered for the development of any of these farms, Sides said.
While there are no federal incentives to bring farms to Pittsylvania County specifically, there are federal efforts to encourage clean energy production throughout the United States. The federal government offers a 30% investment tax credit, which is also known as the Federal Solar Tax Credit. The credit, which doesn’t have a maximum value, allows companies and individuals to deduct 30% of the installation cost from federal taxes.
The investment tax credit was first introduced in 2005. Over the next three years, that 30% number will drop to 26%, then to 22% before remaining at 10% after that.
The Seattle-based technology and e-commerce company Amazon announced their own solar farm in Pittsylvania County on Thursday. County officials said the 50-megawatt project, which is expected to become operational in 2020, will be located in the Banister and Callands-Gretna districts. It will power Amazon’s Web Service data centers, according to the initial announcement.
That does not mean that the power Amazon generates will go directly to their web servers. It does mean Amazon is aiming to provide the same amount of power that they are using.
“It’s not a direct connection, but it is a grid arrangement they have,” Sides said.
Outside of the construction, these solar farms will not provide many jobs. Buckley compared the upkeep of a solar farm to that of a cemetery: mostly landscaping.
“You don’t need much maintenance on these projects,” Buckley said.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.