Solar farm’s neighbors might get break on light bills

Published 1:41 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the location of Primergy Solar’s headquarters.

Charlottesville-based Hexagon Energy hopes to entice support for a 150-megawatt solar farm in Surry County by offering residents living in proximity to the proposed facility monthly rebates on their electric bills.

The program, which company officials are calling the first of its kind in the United States, would entail partnering with Dominion Energy and local electric cooperatives. Anyone living adjacent to the proposed “Loblolly Solar” facility, as it’s been named, or across the street from it, would be eligible for the rebate.

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The facility is proposed to be sited on 900 acres of timberland in Surry’s Spring Grove community at the intersection of routes 10 and 40.

Hexagon hasn’t determined the exact amount that would be deducted from eligible residents’ bills. Company officials hosted a community meeting at the Surry Community Center on Enos Farm Drive on Feb. 22 to solicit input from residents on how much they’re currently paying for power, and what amount of a reduction would be meaningful.

“We don’t want to guess,” said Kathryn Meyer, senior development manager for Primergy Solar, a California-based company that’s partnered with Hexagon for the construction phase of the proposed facility.

The idea for the program evolved, Meyer said, from the objection of neighbors last year when they learned they wouldn’t be able to purchase power from the facility at a lower rate than Dominion or the co-ops were charging.

Because Hexagon is only a power producer, and not a power distributor like Dominion, it doesn’t own the power grid in Surry County. As such, the electricity the proposed Loblolly Solar facility generates would be fed into Dominion’s grid and go where needed – and not necessarily stay in the local area for the benefit of nearby residents.

According to company officials, the 2020 passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates the state transition to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050, has spurred interest among renewable-energy producers in partnering with landowners to develop solar farms.

In such a partnership, the participating landowners benefit financially from the lease or sale agreement, as does the hosting city, town or county from the solar farm’s resulting tax revenue – which is typically higher than what the locality would receive were the land to stay in agricultural use. But neighbors may see little incentive to say “yes” to rows upon rows of photovoltaic solar panels near their homes.

With the rebate program, Hexagon is hoping that will now change.

“To our knowledge it would actually be the first (solar rebate program) in the nation,” Meyer said. “I’ve been doing this for about 10 years and have never seen it before.”

Surry’s Planning Commission had voted against Hexagon’s proposal last fall, citing a conflict with a provision of the county’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan that states solar farms are to be “sited as close to electric transmission lines as possible.” Hexagon’s proposal calls for roughly two miles of utility easements to connect the panels to the existing lines.

But that recommendation never made it to Surry’s Board of Supervisors, which has the final say on the matter, due to Hexagon having added two parcels to its plans after the commissioners’ vote.

According to Meyer, the owner of the two parcels approached Hexagon about joining the solar farm, which will require an amended application to return to the Planning Commission on March 28.

The company has requested four approvals for the project: a comprehensive plan amendment, a rezoning, a conditional use permit and a resolution declaring the proposal “substantially in accord” with the amended comprehensive plan.

This will mark the fourth time Hexagon has revised its application since it first submitted plans to the county in August 2020.

The two additional parcels won’t increase the farm’s output beyond 150 megawatts, Meyer said.

Assuming Hexagon receives the county’s approval, the company plans to conduct cultural and historical site surveys of the land later this year, then get state approval in 2023, begin construction in 2024 and begin generating power by 2025.