Solar farm proposed near Windsor

Published 7:38 pm Friday, July 26, 2019


Ecoplexus Inc., a San Francisco-based solar energy developer, hopes to construct an 85-megawatt, utility-service solar farm just outside the town limits of Windsor.

According to Malina Springer, principal planner with Isle of Wight County’s Department of Planning and Zoning, the proposed site of this solar farm is two parcels located on opposite sides of West Blackwater Road near its intersection with Antioch Road, Knoxville Road and Bows and Arrows Road. The two parcels total just over 1,080 acres, 254 of which are active farmland with the rest being forest. As such, they are zoned rural agricultural conservation, and therefore the company will need to obtain a conditional use permit before construction of the solar farm can commence.

Springer informed the county’s Planning Commission on Tuesday during its public hearing on the requested CUP that the proposed solar installation would be roughly 700 acres, including a planned substation, and would generate about 85 megawatts of power. This, according Forrest Melvin — a permitting specialist with Ecoplexus’s Durham, North Carolina, office — is enough electricity to power roughly 13,000 homes.

As for whether any of those homes would be in Isle of Wight County, Melvin said the electricity generated would follow the path of least resistance on the power grid, meaning it could supply homes in the area if there was demand, or it could continue along the grid if not needed by the site’s neighbors. Michael Wallace, Ecoplexus’s vice president of development for the southeast, clarified to Windsor Weekly on Wednesday that Ecoplexus’s Windsor solar farm, if approved, would become one of many sources of electricity — to include nuclear, biomass, natural gas and wind — with contracts to sell its power onto the grid. He explained that Ecoplexus’s contract to sell its power on the grid would be with a company called PJM, which he said regulates and monitors the transmission grid. Ecoplexus plans to negotiate a separate “off-take” agreement with utility companies wanting to purchase the electricity the Windsor solar farm would generate.

Wallace, when asked about the acres of forestland on the parcels, confirmed that many of the trees would need to be cut down to make room for the solar panels. However, he said this would be the responsibility of the landowners rather than Ecoplexus. Wallace added that logging was a permitted use of the current RAC zoning and that the landowners had planted the trees for the purpose of harvesting the timber.

He also confirmed that the company will stay out of any wetlands identified on the parcels, and would leave forested buffers around the solar farm so that it would not be visible from most roads. Melvin said the company plans to start its wetlands delineation process next week, which involves identifying the boundaries of areas deemed wetlands versus uplands (non-wetlands). She then explained that while the company had not done a wildlife impact study, there are a number of areas believed to be wetlands that break up the site, allowing for wildlife movement around the solar farm. Wallace added that the company will need to work with state agencies to do a study for threatened or endangered species.

A few county residents expressed concerns about the company’s proposal, including Tony and Peggy Briley of Bows and Arrows Road, Mary Simmons of Smithfield and Kimberly Hytinen, also of Bows and Arrows Road. The Brileys’ concerns had focused on the possibility of chemicals used in the manufacture of solar panels leeching into the ground and the site’s visual impact on an otherwise rural community. Simmons referred to the idea of 700 acres of solar panels as “a definite eyesore” and questioned the environmental impact of cutting down most of the trees on the parcels. Hytinen also spoke against the removal of the trees, citing the potential for flooding due to stormwater runoff.

However, Estelle Stradley of Knoxville Road — who owns one of the parcels that would become part of the solar farm — said she was in support of this project on her family farm, describing it as “a good, quiet neighbor with no negative effects” as well as a way to ensure her family farm remains intact.

James Cobb of Tucker Swamp Road in Zuni also spoke in favor of the project on behalf of his father — who owns the other parcel that would become part of the solar farm and lives in the center of the project area — stating that his father has “no intentions of moving once this project is completed.”

In response to these concerns, Melvin informed the Planning Commission that the company will have a stormwater control plan and Tommy Cleveland, a solar engineer, said there would be nothing emitted from the panels.

“It’s a well-understood technology that doesn’t leech out anything that would be harmful,” Cleveland said. “There’s always somebody who doesn’t want change in the area. The question is whether the applicant has met the criteria in the [planning and zoning] ordinance. This applicant has exceeded the criteria.”

The engineer added that the solar panels would be made of pervious material so that water would pass through them and be absorbed into the ground just as it would if the land remained agricultural.

Yet, when it came time for the commissioners to ask questions, Planning Commission Chairman Brian Carroll asked if the county’s economic development department had looked to see if there would be any negative effects to the county from taking 200-plus acres of farmland out of production. After Springer informed him that the department had not addressed this topic in its comments on the matter, the commissioners voted 9-1 to table the matter until August, at which time the department could return with more information. The dissenting vote had come from Vice Chairman Bobby Bowser.

Regardless of whether the Planning Commission votes to recommend approval or denial of the CUP, the matter will eventually go before the county’s Board of Supervisors for a final vote. If the supervisors grant the CUP, it would become the fourth solar farm approved in Isle of Wight County, the others being the 55-megawatt Ho-Fel Solar Farm planned near International Paper, the 20-megawatt Solidago Solar Facility planned about a mile south of the county courthouse and another solar farm on Woodland Drive.