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Energy company unveils plans for solar farm near Smith Mountain Lake

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Planned Westlake Solar Farm

An Israel-based renewable energy company is proposing what could become the first utility-scale solar project in the Roanoke Valley.

Officials with Energix US will hold a virtual community meeting Monday to share details about a solar farm they hope to build on private land near Smith Mountain Lake in Franklin County.

While solar energy is flourishing in Virginia, growth has been slower in the western part of the state.

When it comes to large solar installations, “You typically want to find land that is flat and open,” said David Murray, executive director of the Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association, the trade group for Virginia’s solar industry.

The mountainous area of Southwest Virginia also has a relatively low level of solar irradiation, caused by weather patterns and cloud cover, which Murray said can make it challenging for developers.

But there are opportunities, as shown by the first public proposal for a solar farm in the Roanoke Valley. Energix plans to build solar panels on about half of a 220-acre parcel of wooded and open land in the Westlake community.

Dubbed Westlake Solar, the project would be located just south of Virginia 122, about 2 miles west of Bridgewater Plaza.

An array of photovoltaic panels would have trackers that move with the sun, reducing the potential for glare when viewed from the ground, the company says. Landscaping and vegetation buffers are planned to screen its view from neighboring properties.

The project requires a conditional use permit from Franklin County. The planning commission is expected to get the case in June or July, and will make a recommendation to the board of supervisors.

Assuming that local approval is granted, the solar farm would then need to obtain a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Construction could begin in 2022, according to Yarden Golan, a spokesman for Energix.

Energix, an Arlington subsidiary of Energix-Renewable Energies of Israel, has three projects in operation in Virginia, six under construction and more in the development phase, Golan said.

The company’s involvement in Virginia began in 2017, well before policies and laws like the Virginia Clean Economy Act encouraged the greater use of renewable energy such as solar and wind.

“The VCEA further highlights that we made the right decision, and that Virginia is going to be a leader in developing its renewable energy resources,” Golan wrote in an email.

When completed, the solar farm would generate 20 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 2,400 homes. Although it’s too early to say who would purchase the electricity, Energix typically sells its power to a local utility, Golan said. An Appalachian Power Co. line bisects the proposed site.

Earlier this year, Appalachian announced that it was taking bids for solar projects. More requests for proposals are expected in the coming years, as the Clean Economy Act requires the utility to provide totally carbon-fee electricity to its Virginia customers by 2050.

The power company’s first venture into solar energy, a 150-acre bank of solar panels in Campbell County, is expected to go online later this year.

In Franklin County, Westlake Solar is projected to contribute $2 million over its lifetime to county coffers through tax payments, and would create about 75 jobs during its construction, Energix said.

Of the 67 permits issued statewide by DEQ for utility-scale solar projects, only two are for facilities west of Roanoke. Those two solar farms, both proposed for Wythe County, are not yet in operation.

One of them, a 20-megawatt solar farm about 2 miles northeast of Wytheville, is an Energix project. Planning is in the final stages and construction is expected to start soon, Golan said.

The second project, a 75-megawatt facility in the Poplar Camp community, is also in the final stages of planning but will likely go online after the Energix one, according to Wythe County Administrator Stephen Bear.

In January, the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors approved a special use permit for a 2,700-acre solar farm near the New River Valley Airport. The developers have not yet obtained a permit from DEQ, which is the next step in a regulatory process that can take months or years.

While utility-scale development is expected to pick up in Southwest Virginia, Murray said the greatest potential remains with distributed solar, or smaller arrays of panels installed on the rooftops of private homes and businesses.

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