A solar energy producer has proposed a 30-acre plant in Ellison that it says would save ratepayers money on their electric bills, a first-of-its-kind opportunity in Montgomery County.
County planning staff endorsed the proposed 5-megawatt plant, while a majority of county planning commission members disagreed. In December, with strong resident opposition in the room, a motion to recommend approval of the project to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors failed on a 4-5 vote.
The company asked to pause further consideration of the project until at least late March.
This is Montgomery County’s first proposal for a major solar energy system within its borders. Nearby localities including Henry County have approved or are reviewing major solar field projects. Up to this point, Montgomery County has approved only solar systems of less than an acre for private use in residential and commercial construction.
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Justin Sanders, senior planner for the county, said that renewable energy targets set by the state “signal a coming wave of these types of projects throughout Southwest Virginia.”
Pivot Energy, a Colorado solar provider, applied last year for a permit to mount 10,560 panels on 28 acres in the middle of the 3-mile-long Elliston Valley along U.S. 11/460. Pivot Energy would deliver the electricity to Appalachian Power Co. and says customers could buy it at cost below conventional electricity prices.
The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill that would let Appalachian Power customers buy solar energy in such a fashion.
A proposal to provide financial benefits to electricity ratepayers through the establishment of solar energy plants would exempt low-income customers from paying a monthly fee of up to $20, called a minimum bill.
“This project will positively impact the local community by employing local labor, decarbonizing the local grid, offering a discount to local subscribing AEP/APCo customers, and providing increased resources to the county over the life of the project,” according to the company’s application.
Pivot Energy calls itself a national solar provider that develops, finances, builds, owns and manages solar and energy storage projects. It has 13 years of experience, 1,284 projects and 648 project clients, according to its website.
The Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association said Pivot is a member in good standing. Energy Capital Partners, a major investor in the renewables industry based in Summit, New Jersey, has owned Pivot Energy since 2021.
The solar plant is to be located on the Fotheringay farm, a former plantation with a residence believed to have been built in 1796. The farm’s owner, Fotheringay LLC, represented by Sarah Dabney Jacob of Louisiana, signed Pivot Energy’s application and stands to receive economic benefits, the application said.
Area residents have told county officials the project would damage natural resources, degrade animal habitat, depress property values and bring industrialization to the corridor with unsightly industrial facilities. Several people said they would rather see homes built along the table land bordering the South Fork of the Roanoke River between Elliston and Shawsville.
A site plan shows the closests panels standing 1,500 feet from the historic home, which once belonged to a Revolutionary War colonel. Still in good shape, the dwelling rents for $500-plus a night on the Airbnb vacation-spot website.
The opponents don’t oppose solar energy, but see the project as misplaced at the farm, said Steve Fijalkowski, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors who represents the district where the project would be situated. Fijalkowski, who has attended a meeting held by opponents, said “surely, there’s got to be other areas other than this one.”
Pivot Energy told county officials it wanted to respond to local concerns its project has raised, and changed details of its original proposal, but “last I heard that probably wasn’t going to be enough to sway this group,” Fijalkowski said.
The commission took up the new version in December, hearing from three speakers who voiced support and 12 speakers against. The 4-5 vote followed. Pivot Energy asked the county to place the application on hold and delay holding any public hearing before supervisors until at least that body’s March 27 meeting, county spokeswoman Jennifer Harris said. That date coincides with the end of the current state lawmaking session and governor’s bill-signing window.
Solar power involves converting energy from the sun into electricity, a production method that does not emit pollution or greenhouse gases like coal and gas-fired power plants.
An estimated 5.4% of electricity used in Virginia comes from solar energy, the association said. But much more is possible, Virginia leaders say. The state has directed electricity providers to transition to renewable energy by mid-century or pay penalities.
The planned Elliston project would be a fraction of the size of a utility-scale facility built by an electricity company such as Appalachian Power. The panels would sit on metal racks mounted to the ground and adjust to track the sun, topping out at 12 feet high at peak tilt, and in rows 25 feet apart. Crews would wire the components to create circuits with inverters and underground cables transmitting the power to a transformer on a concrete slab, according to a county planning report. An 8-foot fence would surround the facility.
Although about 30 acres would be involved, the panels themselves would cover about a fourth of the space. Pivot Energy would procure sheep herds to provide vegetation control within the compound, the company said.
The closet edge of the solar array field would sit 360 feet from U.S. 11/460 and 700 feet from Eastern Montgomery Elementary School.
The developer proposed installing a 50 foot-deep planted buffer at least as tall as the fence. Noting the green buffer would incorporate an existing tree line, county staff called the proposed screening “extensive.” Noise from the equipment will measure a “minimal” 30 decibels at 50 feet away from the fence, the staff report said. That’s about as loud as a whisper.
The surface of the panels would contain an anti-glare coating to maximize sunlight penetration, reducing reflection.
According to the company, no “critical” habitats were found within the project limits, nor any wetlands or historic resources. No water or well would be required. If construction could begin as planned in fall, production could begin in spring 2024 and generate enough power for 795 homes, the company said.
County land use policy designates the area for careful stewardship and permits agriculture, forestry, outdoor recreation and conservation. It allows non-agricultural activities “compatible in scale and intensity” with existing uses that do not harm public health or public safety and preserve farmland, open space and scenic and natural resources.
Staff called the project compliant “as a natural resource-based use” that would require minimal site work and preserve vegetation and forested areas on the rest of the farm. In addition, “the economic benefit to the property owners allows for the preservation and continued operation of other agricultural operations on the largest farm and maintenance of existing open space,” the staff report said. The host property spans 241 acres in all.
There would be a direct public benefit from the project providing renewable energy to the grid, the staff report said.
The county would receive new tax money in addition to a voluntary annual payment by the company, the report said.
At the end of the project’s life, the developer would have to recycle or reuse the “components” and restore the land within a year.
Legislation before the General Assembly to make a shared solar program available to Apco customers could boost Pivot Energy’s project. Under this concept, the Elliston array would become a shared solar facility and Apco customers could purchase electric power through a subscription to it. Since solar power costs less money to produce, customers would stand to save money.
The wrinkle is that the program would charge shared solar subscribers a fee that, depending on the amount, would eat into or even eat up the savings. However, it would exempt low-income customers from paying the so-called minimum bill.
A household using the average amount of electricity would save $150 a year when subscribed to the project, or about 10% of the average annual electric bill of $1,541, the company said.
Pivot Energy said shared solar’s benefits represent “a key factor in a potential approval for the project."