Whether or not you believe climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon or is being fueled by human activity and industrialization, you can’t deny that the public is demanding more energy be generated from renewables in order to limit global warming’s effects on the planet. Even here in Southside Virginia in Pittsylvania County and Danville, the desire for locally generated power from renewable sources is strong.

That’s what is behind the growing number of solar farms in Pittsylvania County. Three of the five planned or currently operational solar farms will provide electricity to Danville Utilities. TurningPoint Energy’s Kentuck solar farm, which is already online, and its planned facility at the old Ringgold golf course are two of Danville Utilities’ local sources for renewable energy.

According to Danville Utilities Executive Director Jason Grey, when all three facilities are operational, 21 percent of the company’s energy will be generated in our own back yard, reducing the need to buy energy on the open market during times of peak demand and also cutting transmission costs, too.

As the Register & Bee reported earlier this month, capacity rates are based on the five highest peak hours between the months of June and September. As Grey pointed out, limiting the amount of energy used during those times will lead to lower rates for customers. “That’s why you see a lot of utilities going solar,” he said. “Solar is very good in this part of the country, even this part of Virginia.”

Indeed it is.

Playing a big role in the growth of the local solar industry is the federal Investment Tax Credit, which is designed to encourage development of such projects and helps reduce startup costs by 26 percent.

Take, for example, the 1,500-acre Maplewood Solar Farm near Gretna.

The farm is being developed by Austin, Texas-based Open Road Renewables and will generate electricity for Appalachian Power Co. The company’s director of development, Patrick Buckley, told the Register & Bee his company likely wouldn’t have considered Pittsylvania were it not for the tax incentive.

“The solar farms we are developing in Pittsylvania County already face more challenging economics versus the competing projects in flatter and sunnier areas of the state,” Buckley wrote in an email to the paper. “So, any increase in costs would make these solar projects less competitive and less likely to succeed.”

But what has also made the county’s growing solar industry successful is the attitude found in county government. The county’s permitting process, from start to finish, is simple and straightforward, something businesses need. Local tax rates aren’t exorbitant; neither is government actively fighting such projects.

The good news for Pittsylvania, and any other Southside Virginia counties courting the solar industry, is that these farms pay much more in taxes than the county would receive from the same tracts under agricultural usage. The Maplewood project, for example, is expected to pay $1.3 million in taxes to county over the course of 10 years, and there’s no need for water, sewer and other services.

But just as important as any of this is the benefit solar farms provide to landowners.

Making a living from farming and traditional use of the land is becoming more and more of a challenge for farmers not just in Pittsylvania but across the state and nation. Margins are tight; risks, especially from the weather and from global warming, are high; and farmers find it difficult to find workers for the jobs needed on a farm. Solar farms allow landowners either to sell their land outright to the solar companies or, more frequently, rent the land for annual payments with a typical contract running 25 to 30 years. It’s almost like an annuity for landowners, giving them a return on their investment at a rate far higher than they would be able to realize from traditional agriculture.

Kevin Owen, a co-owner of K&K Owen Farms, knows firsthand the value of solar farms. Open Road Renewables is leasing 500 acres from Owen as part of the 1,500-acre Maplewood project. Just as Owen Farms, primarily a wheat-and-grains operation, has diversified into cattle, timber and small-feed operations, he sees solar energy as just another step along the road to his operation’s long-term sustainability.

Owen’s take on his own farm’s diversification applies, as well, to Danville Utilities and other energy generators: “I’m trying to diversify my farm. And I’d like to see our country diversify where it gets its energy, as well.”

Well said.

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