AMHERST — Amherst County’s first proposed commercial utility-scale solar farm cleared its first hurdle Thursday after the county planning commission recommended a special exception permit for the project.
The Amherst County Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend granting the zoning permit request from SolAmerica Energy LLC, an Atlanta-based company. The site for the planned 5-megawatt project is about three miles east of the town of Amherst near the intersection of Union Hill Road and U.S. 60.
The property is composed of two parcels totaling about 125 acres with agricultural residential zoning and currently is under long-term lease by SolAmerica. Ryan Peters, an engineer with SolAmerica, said the company has more than 100 solar operations and the project in Amherst marks its first in Virginia.
The company responded to a request for proposals from Appalachian Power Company in early 2020 for solar energy development in its service area, Peters said. SolAmerica will develop and build out the roughly 50-acre site, which currently is a pasture surrounded by woods and wetlands, for APCo, Peters said.
APCo eventually would take ownership of the 50-year lease, according to Peters. The solar generation planned is enough to power more than 900 homes.
“We’re tying into existing three-phased power lines that go into your homes, your businesses,” Peters said of connecting to the existing utility grid.
The construction phase, expected to take about 6 to 8 months, would bring several dozen workers to the county and the associated economic activity of them eating in local restaurants and staying in hotels, he said.
SolAmerica also has a bond in place with the county to decommission the site, though it has no intention to, that will provide money for the county or landowner to clear it of panels if necessary, he added.
The site is referred to in county documents as the Amherst Mays Project.
“The Amherst Mays Project represents a new utility-scale solar industry in Amherst which can complement Amherst’s agriculture industry, diversity incomes for landowners and revenues for the county, and become an overall positive force in the community,” a summary in the application states.
The proposed solar farm will be remotely monitored and will not have on-site personnel for normal day-to-day operations, the application states. Standard operation and maintenance of the facility requires workers to be on site for about seven to 10 days per year.
The planned operation is just more than 500 feet from the nearest residence, Peters said. The proximity to power demand, site characteristics and topography, including a south-facing slope to fully draw energy from the sun, are important factors for choosing the site, he added.
“Finding a suitable site is a lot more difficult than you would think,” Peters said. “We can’t put these projects in the middle of nowhere.”
Peters said glare and negative effects on adjoining property values are among several concerns voiced during such projects.
“The panels that we use are designed to reduce glare as much as possible because any glare is lost energy,” Peters said. “We’re trying to collect all the energy we can.”
He said multiple studies have been done by accredited appraisers that have evaluated effects on property values from such solar farm enterprises and concluded less than a 1% increase is common.
Brian Mays, who owns the property with his brother and mother, was the only resident to speak during a public hearing. He said he wouldn’t support a project he feels negatively affects neighbors and he believes the solar farm will bring a positive financial benefit to Amherst.
“We’re definitely for the project. I think it’s a good thing for Amherst County,” Mays said, adding: “This is a way to be a quiet neighbor.”
The county recently passed a solar ordinance that allowed the project to proceed with its permit request, which received no public opposition during a pair of hearings. The special exception now heads to the Amherst County Board of Supervisors for review.