Solar farms move forward

Published 10:37 pm Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Suffolk City Council on Wednesday granted the city’s first approval to a solar farm, the day after a second solar farm in a different location also moved ahead in the process toward approval.

Tradewind Energy got council’s unanimous approval Wednesday to construct a solar farm on a 150-acre site at 5000 Pruden Blvd.

On Tuesday, the Planning Commission approved a project by Juwi Inc. to build a solar farm in the 1100 block of Hosier Road.

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City Council members on Wednesday praised the arrival of solar energy to Suffolk.

“I’m excited to know Suffolk is moving into the future,” Councilman Tim Johnson said.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson agreed.

“Solar is the cleanest, probably the best and renewable,” she said. “There’s no limit to the sun’s power.”

The biggest concern for council members considering the Tradewind Energy project, as it was for planning commissioners, was not the renewable energy but rather the traffic that will be required to construct it. During peak construction, about 120 vehicles per day will be traveling to and from the site. That includes mostly employees arriving in their personal vehicles but also a few deliveries, Justin McGeeney of Tradewind Energy said at the planning meeting last month.

On a busy road that already has lots of truck traffic and is prone to serious crashes, that’s a cause for concern.

“(Route) 460 is becoming a very hazardous highway,” city traffic engineer Robert Lewis said during Wednesday’s meeting. It is a four-lane, undivided highway, he added, and any access point carries a crash risk.

He also noted that it’s a very straight road. “A highway like that lulls people into complacency,” he said.

The plan to protect motorists is to put flashing lights near the site and activate them with traffic. A stoplight is not warranted there and may actually increase the crash risk, Lewis said.

The Tradewind Energy project will produce enough energy to power about 2,500 homes.

Likewise, the Pleasant Hill Solar project on Hosier Road would power about 2,500 homes, said Sarah Stoneking, vice president of commercial transactions for Juwi Inc. The project includes about 239 acres.

During the planning meeting, Chairman Howard Benton expressed a concern about hunters in the area and potential damage to the equipment.

“Some people are a good shot, and some people are not,” he quipped.

Stoneking said the company had experienced damage from hunters at least once before. “Fortunately, it has not been a rampant problem,” she said.

The solar farms have not taken long to come to Suffolk following City Council’s approval of regulations for them last September.

The regulations include a requirement that all on-site transmission and power lines will be placed underground. The solar farms also will be prevented from directing glare onto neighboring property or public roads, must have perimeter security fencing and warning signs, and must have a minimum of a 15-foot vegetative buffer around the property.

The land value of solar farms will be taxed as real property with an industrial classification. The panels themselves are considered personal property and are exempt from taxation, but the poles, concrete footings, fences and buildings are all taxable as real property.

Melissa Venable of Land Planning Solutions, who is working with Tradewind Energy, said it’s not likely solar farms will take over every inch of available agricultural land in Suffolk. There are very specific requirements for where they can be located, which includes access to the power distribution grid with enough capacity to hold the energy produced.

In addition, the land can be returned to an agricultural use after the facility is decommissioned.

“It’s an alternative use for a period of time,” she said.