Buckingham approves one of Virginia’s largest solar projects

Published 10:56 pm Sunday, February 18, 2024

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How would Mountain Pine Solar help Buckingham County? That was the main question Feb. 12, as Buckingham supervisors prepared to vote on the project. And it was brought up in different ways by those opposed and those in favor of the concept. Hodson Energy officials pointed to $10.9 million the county will receive over 40 years from the operation. Neighbors around the 1,065 acre proposal, one of the largest solar projects to be proposed in Virginia this year, questioned if that money is worth everything else that could potentially come with it. 

Ruth Aldridge works with the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine and has lived in Buckingham County more than 25 years. She asked about what wasn’t in the proposal. That is, where are the discussions with human and health services? Where are the protocols for fire departments if there’s a chemical burn or emergency medical services? She also pointed out that part of the project will be one mile from the James River. Other speakers pointed out chemicals could also fall into Bear Garden Creek. 

“Clean water is a necessity but vital for survival for people, animals and our environment,” Aldridge said. “This to me is nothing more than murky water.” 

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Stephanie Marshall, co-owner of Brickyard Bulls, echoed Aldridge’s concerns. She pointed out that Buckingham fire departments aren’t prepared to handle any potential large-scale chemical fires that stem from the solar farm. She also raised an issue that kept popping up throughout the rest of the hearing. Again, how would it help Buckingham? Residents won’t get to use the solar energy to power their homes. Also, it wouldn’t reduce anyone’s power bills and aside from potentially some temporary construction jobs, there’s few opportunities for residents to be employed. So at the end of the day, what’s left?

“We know what facilities like Arvonia Solar do to rural communities,” Marshall said. “They pollute waterways, destroy the natural habitat, bring in traffic and place financial liability on the taxpayers.”  

One of the largest solar projects approved in 2024

One piece that both sides brought up, for different reasons, is the size of the solar project. This is one of the largest solar projects considered in Virginia so far this year. The total size of the property stretches 1,065 acres, with Hodson Energy officials saying they plan to use roughly 54% of that or 572 acres. Most of those in neighboring counties like Prince Edward are 15 to 20 megawatts. This would be an 80 megawatt project, with no battery storage component.

As far as the financial breakdown goes, the county will receive $8.5 million of the $10.9 million in tax revenue over 40 years. They will also get $2.4 million, spaced out in three payments. The first $800,000 would come six months after the special use permit is given. The second payment would be after the building permit is issued and the third payment of $800,000 would be given when it starts operating. 

Hodson officials pointed to the financial impact, arguing that if left as farmland, the county would get less than $300,000 from the same piece of land over that period of time. 

“This project represents a significant investment in the local community and underscores our commitment to supporting economic growth while advancing renewable energy goals,” said Kyle West. He serves as Senior Development Advisor for Hodson and spoke before the supervisors on Monday. 

In addition to financials, Hodson officials also brought proof of support from some Buckingham residents. More than 170 people signed a petition of support, however, as others pointed out Monday, those residents wouldn’t be neighbors of the site. 

Company officials also pointed to the fact the project would help improve Virginia’s energy portfolio. In 2020, the Assembly passed the Clean Economy Act. It requires just under two-thirds of the state’s electricity to come from solar or wind energy by the end of 2035. A bill designed to take away local control of what solar projects get approved was continued to next year’s Assembly session. 

Making some changes 

Buckingham supervisors required a few changes before taking a final vote on the project. They wanted 500 foot residential setbacks, as opposed to the 350 feet the company had on the plan. The groups agreed to 400 instead. The project also has to be 75 feet from all wetlands and supervisors required some water testing. 

As it stands, Hodson will have to test Bear Garden Creek in three places before starting construction. Then, six months after construction, it’ll have to be tested again to make sure nothing from construction or the site has damaged the water. 

With that in place, by a slim majority, the supervisors voted to approve the project. Four voted yes, including Chairman Joe Chambers, Paul Garrett, Cameron Gilliam and Michael Palmore. Vice Chairman Dennis Davis and Danny Allen voted no, with Harry Bryant abstaining. 

What happens next? 

Now yes, supervisors did vote to approve, but that doesn’t mean construction starts tomorrow. Mountain Pine Solar still needs one of two things. They either need a state permit from the Department of Environmental Quality or a certificate of public convenience. 

“The most common is probably getting the permit by rule,” West said. “(That’s) a 14 step process where state departments are brought in to examine the problem. It’s a many many months process.” 

Beyond that, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources will also take another look at the site. Both of those things need to happen before actual construction can begin.