Supervisors approve 150-megawatt solar facility

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 3, 2018 | 3:25 p.m.

Roughly 1,500 acres near Route 10 to be used for solar panels

PRINCE GEORGE – As Virginia continues to become an enticing location for companies seeking to grow green technology, Prince George County finds itself right in the midst of those being eyed for such development as leaders approved its second large-scale solar facility, this one located in the county’s northern end.

During their lone meeting in June, supervisors unanimously approved a proposal by Fort Powhatan Solar to build a new large-scale facility along and surrounding Fort Powhatan, Wells Creek, and Nobles roads across a 2,500-acre plot of land off Route 10 after a public hearing where no citizens spoke for or against the project and a unanimous recommendation to approve being provided by the Prince George County Planning Commission.

Prior to the quiet public hearing, Prince George Zoning Administrator Douglas Miles told county leaders there were very few calls in favor or against this project, even after the project’s presentation before the county planning commission and following a county meeting held by Fort Powhatan Solar to give residents an idea about what the project will look like as it comes together.

According to county documents and company officials, while the request called for roughly 2,500 acres to be used as part of the project, only about 1,500 of those acres will actually be used for panels. In addition, in the northern reaches of the subject property near the shoreline of the James River, a roughly ten-acre portion of land has been excluded from the project which is the home of historic Fort Powhatan. 

At the time of its presentation and public hearing before the Prince George Planning Commission, that section of land was part of the project, but Fort Powhatan Solar removed the ten-acre historical fort site from their application. According to Miles, “the current property owner can continue to work with the historical society non-profit group to donate the land, provide a deeded access easement and related efforts to turn this historical site over for preservation purposes.”

In maps showing the proposed areas that would be used for solar panel arrays, those panels would remain well south and west of the Fort Powhatan historical fort, mainly due to wetlands that surround the location. 

In 2017, supervisors updated their zoning ordinances to provide language relating to solar facilities, particularly large-scale ones like Fort Powhatan Solar to help provide a consistent guideline for projects like this seeking a home in Prince George County. Those updates include requiring those utility-scale facilities looking to establish a new operation in Prince George in agricultural zoning districts A-1 or R-A, industrial zoning districts M-2 or M-2, or general business zoning district B-1 would be required to receive a special exception from the county’s planning commission and board of supervisors.

In addition, the county’s language provides specific definitions that correlate with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and their permit-by-rule requirements, which are regulations enacted by the Commonwealth in 2012 that guide operations of solar-powered electric generation projects. 

The county’s adopted language on large-scale solar facilities also lays out specifics regarding buffering and those requirements were seen in the final approval of Fort Powhatan Solar’s request. Among them, facility operators must provide “a minimum 50-foot buffer” between the site itself and “all roads and adjacent properties, either occupied or unoccupied.” 

Along with the buffer, operators will also have to install a security fence that will have to stand at least six feet high and surround the entire perimeter of the site. 

Regarding noise, the county’s language and the approved conditions as part of Fort Powhatan Solar’s special exception require that all site activity related to piledriving be limited to the hours of sunrise to sunset Monday through Saturday during a given week. Piledriving is normally the loudest part of the construction process for a solar facility and the county’s ordinance prevents such activities on Sundays. 

All other normal on-site construction beyond piledriving are permitted to take place seven days a week within the provisions of the county noise ordinance.

According to officials with Fort Powhatan Solar, they have already begun working with utility companies and they are in the process of going through a number of steps as part of the state’s permit-by-right regulations for solar facilities.

Given their proximity to the James River and much of the area falling within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, operators are already looking at preservation plans for sensitive wetlands. According to the company, there are approximately 287 acres of wetlands on the 2,500-acre site they are planning to develop on, along with a number of other “rural agricultural ponds” that will be protected during development and operation of the site. 

In addition, vegetative buffers will be used to protect streams and the James River and the company will comply with the county’s zoning and erosion control ordinances regarding buffers and land disturbances. 

From a public safety perspective, Fort Powhatan Solar will have to coordinate directly with the Prince George Fire, EMS, and Emergency Management to provide “solar energy materials, educational information and/or training to the respective personnel responding to the solar energy facility project in regards to how to safely respond to any emergencies that may occur on the premises.”

In 2017 when the county adopted the language pertaining to large-scale solar facilities, one aspect that was discussed and included was a decommissioning process should a facility opt to cease operations and that language is present in the county’s conditions for approval of Fort Powhatan Solar’s proposal. Before the facility’s site plan is approved or building permits are issued, the company will have to have a decommissioning plan in place, which would include the anticipated life of the solar facility, the estimated cost of decommissioning in the future in current dollars, how that estimation was made, how exactly the project will be decommissioned, and who will be responsible for the decommissioning plan.

Should the facility become completely inactive or substantially discontinuing the delivery of electricity for 24 months, the site would be considered abandoned. The company would be required to let the county know in writing once the site is no longer active as a solar energy facility and decommissioning must take place within six months of that written notice. 

“We really strive to be good neighbors,” officials with Fort Powhatan Solar said. “We had a community meeting in November of 2016 and earlier this year and we really worked to address concerns with the community and, so far, we haven’t heard many negatives.”

While supervisors did unanimously approve the project, prior to their vote, Supervisor Donald Hunter asked if the county has any way to limit the number of solar projects that come into the county to prevent an over-proliferation of facilities across Prince George.

Speaking to his concern, Zoning Administrator Miles said usually prospective operators are looking at data on a larger scale to determine viable locations, such as satellite information that breaks down and where the sun is hitting the curvature of the earth and that most of the projects see officials checking in with local extension agencies about available land.

“They don’t want to take tillable soil,” Miles said. “I know that some farmers in our community have been concerned about that.”

He said, while he doesn’t think there will be a proliferation of this kind of large-scale project across the county, he did say if concern does exist, the county could look at creating a solar energy siting policy.

No specific time was given for when the facility would begin operations as the company is still working through state permit-by-right regulations. 

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