IW planners OK ‘Prairie’ solar farm in 9-1 vote

Published 7:28 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A proposed 432-acre solar farm will advance to Isle of Wight County supervisors with a 9-1 favorable recommendation from the county’s Planning Commission.

Commissioner Jennifer Boykin, who in March had raised concerns about a solar farm fire in neighboring Surry County, cast the sole dissenting vote.

Arlington-based Energix Renewables is seeking a conditional use permit for a 20-megawatt facility named “Prairie Solar,” which would be located along Longview Drive within one to two miles of the existing 180-acre Woodland solar farm. Energix Renewables is a subsidiary of an Israeli company, Energix Group.

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Woodland is the only operational solar farm in the county, though a total of six have been approved.

Longview Drive, also known as State Route 602, spans roughly 6.3 miles from its intersection with Bowling Green Road near Darden’s Country Store to the Everets community on the Suffolk side of the county-city border.

Capt. Steve Henson of Isle of Wight County Emergency Services spoke ahead of the April 25 vote on the challenges facing first responders if there’s a fire at a solar farm.

We’re not solar engineers; we’re not sure of what’s energized, what’s not,” Henson said.

He and Allie Ondash, a project development associate with Energix, say the current response plan calls for the fire to be contained within the solar project’s fenced area until engineers with solar expertise arrive on-scene.

The land is owned by Everets Properties. Alexandra Rose, speaking on behalf of Everets at the commission’s February public hearing, told the commissioners the land has been in her family for six generations. The Prairie lease, she said, would be a way to keep the land in her family.

Ondash told commissioners in February that of the 432 acres, only 152 would be fenced and contain solar panels. Roughly 122 acres would continue to be used by Everets Properties for timber farming. The project site would be at least 600 feet from the road and surrounded by a 50-foot vegetative buffer.

A fact sheet Energix presented at a Feb. 1 informational meeting on the project estimated the project would generate $3.3 million in real estate and machinery and tools tax revenue over its 35-year lifespan.

The project has seen its share of critics. Of the nine who spoke at the February hearing, only Rose expressed support for the project. Boykin, in February, noted Energix had faced two Virginia Department of Environmental Quality fines pertaining to solar farms in Buckingham and Wythe counties – namely concerning sediment contamination in nearby streams, according to reporting by The Farmville Herald. The enforcement action was taken against Energix EPC US LLC.

Commissioner Thomas Distefano made the motion to recommend Prairie’s approval, which Commissioner Raynard Gibbs seconded. 

Distefano, in February, championed a draft ordinance that would limit the cumulative acreage of existing and proposed solar farms to 2% of the county’s “prime” farm soils, or a maximum of 2,446 acres, of which 1,759 or 72% is already taken up by the six approved solar farms. The proposed cap, if approved by county supervisors, would not apply to any solar project that submits an official application for a conditional use permit prior to the date of the draft ordinance’s approval. Energix submitted its Prairie application in June.

Prairie will go to the supervisors for consideration on May 18.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:23 p.m. April 26 to clarify that Energix Renewables is Arlington-based, and the subsidiary of an Israeli company, Energix Group.