A proposal to build a large-scale solar farm in Albemarle County got its first public hearing, as Supervisors met to vote on two special use permits for the project — both of which were approved.
That means Albemarle’s solar project is moving forward, though it will still need final site plan approval from the county in the next several months. According to developer Scott Remer, if local and state permitting moves according to plan, and barring logistical issues with project building materials, Woodbridge could be breaking ground on the project by next summer.
More about local solar energy production
The Woodbridge Solar project, a collaboration between Charlottesville’s Hexagon Energy and a privately owned timber farm, proposes to install about 650 acres of solar panels on 2,300 acres of land in southeast Albemarle County. That would make it the largest solar farm in the county with power generation sufficient to cover 25,000 of the county’s roughly 45,000 homes at an estimate 35-megawatts
Remer told Supervisors on Wednesday that Woodbridge is a “dual activity” solar project, also designed to rejuvenate the severely depleted soil on the property.
This will be a multi-year project that will start with fertilizing the ground and planting vegetation that will attract pollinators like bees. That could create an opportunity to build industry like wine and mead production if the land is able to support beekeeping operations, Remer said. Once the land is more recovered, the project could also expand to include sheep farming, which would reduce the use of gas-powered mowing equipment in maintaining overgrowth. Hexagon has already met with local farmers interested in the projects.
The currently depleted condition of the land was an oft remarked on theme during the public hearing. One commenter described it as “a desiccated moonscape” and another called it “an otherwise useless piece of land.”
It’s a “desiccated moonscape,” however, that is drawing a lot of public interest. About a dozen people spoke about the project when the floor was opened to public comment. Among the speakers, the majority were county residents and most were in support of moving forward, quickly, with the project.
“We don’t have any time left, we have to proceed on projects like this immediately,” Albemarle resident Kirk Bowers said during his public comments.
Others noted the solar farm is one of the few capital improvements the county can make that won’t otherwise require a massive investment in other infrastructure.
The meeting also saw a lot of participation from local environmental groups who often pointed to the luckier elements that come part and parcel with the development. Its direct proximity to power lines and relative ease wiring into the grid was a favored point. They pointed to the solar project was approved by the regional power grid manager, PJM, before it declared a moratorium on such projects, and the fact that Woodbridge will come online just in time to replace a coal and gas-powered plant going offline in Fluvanna.
“We’d be remiss not to explore the benefits of this project,” the Community Climate Collaborative’s Katie Ebinger told those assembled.
Still, not all participants came to express enthusiasm. Scottsville’s Patricia Meda lives directly adjacent to the proposed building site. She is concerned it is designed too close to residential structures and creates a risk of fire that the county is not equipped to handle.
“Electricity generation causes power arcs, which can cause big fires,” she said.
Resident Rob McGinnnis was concerned about the size of the building project’s effect on clean water regionally. And many residents, while noting support, offered it with a caveat about how truly limited the options for rejuvenation of the land are, given the present condition of the soil.
Floated concerns notwithstanding, Supervisors voted unanimously to approve both special use permit requests, one to allow for some additional grading in construction, the other to construction of a power station to allow the project to be connected to the power lines.
This vote to keep pushing forward with solar comes shortly after Amherst County’s planning commission voted (with the support of County Supervisors) last month to deny the proposed Piney River solar array based on environmental concerns with the site’s history and impacts to scenic views.