The developer behind a future solar farm just south of the town of Orange has been emphatic that it’s project is not just a business investment in the area but a community good.
As part of that commitment, Maitland, Florida-based ESA Solar has awarded $10,000 to two Orange County nonprofit organizations as part of its community grant programming.
The recipients, awarded $5,000 each, were the Children’s Toy Box, a volunteer-run organization that provides Christmas gifts to local children in low-income families, and the James Madison Museum, the first museum dedicated to the nation’s fourth president and the father of the Constitution.
The Toy Box told The Daily Progress that it has pooled the $5,000 from the ESA with an additional $10,000 donated from nearby churches to order 325 $50 Food Lion gift cards. The cards are "restricted," meaning goods such as alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets cannot be purchased, but all other groceries can. The Toy Box handed out the gift cards, along with presents, to families in need on Dec. 16.
“You have never seen so much emotion,” the group’s founder and President Donna Waugh-Robinson told The Daily Progress.
The ESA grant made a big difference, Waugh-Robinson said. Her organization first started distributing gift cards in 2022, but was able to order more this past December thanks to the grant money. With three Food Lions in Orange County, the grocer is the primary source of food for some residents.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity to do the gift cards,” said Waugh-Robinson. “We are a food insecure community and our local food banks are hit pretty hard.”
The James Madison Museum said it plans to use its money to support ongoing conservation and educational programs in the area.
“We’re very appreciative of ESA for selecting us for the grant,” museum President Jessica Cifizzari told The Daily Progress. “We’re very excited to see them working with so many community organizations and putting money into things that give back to the Orange County community.”
Some of the museum’s current initiatives include preservation efforts at Grassland, a historic Orange County estate owned by the Faudree family in the 1900s. The Faudrees operated a general store, post office and telephone company out of Grassland, and the James Madison Museum is working to preserve the telephone system.
The museum is also undertaking an oral history project of the county and partnering with the Orange County Chamber of Commerce to celebrate its centenary.
ESA said that before awarding grant money it looks for nonprofit organizations that embody one of four characteristics: community revitalization, environmental sustainability, education support or healthy living.
Since its founding in 2017, ESA co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Justin Vandenbroeck estimated the clean energy company has donated roughly a quarter of a million dollars through its grant program. ESA implements the grant program with each of its solar projects that span across 22 states. The company, which was ranked as the No. 1 solar developer in Florida by Solar Power World in 2023, has permitted nine renewable energy projects in the commonwealth since 2021, all in the Southside area to date.
“Anytime we’re investing in small communities, we always try to ensure the economic benefits extend beyond our company,” Vandenbroeck told The Daily Progress. “One of the things we’ve learned is any time you’re trying to ensure the economic benefits are extended to the community, you have to do community outreach and build partnerships.”
Aside from fulfilling its philanthropic values, ESA’s grant program allows the company to connect with those in the community who stand to gain the most from its solar projects.
ESA’s Orange Road Solar Farm, a 22-acre plot off of James Madison Highway, is expected to produce electricity for roughly 1,000 low- to moderate-income households in the area as a part of the Virginia Shared Solar Program.
The General Assembly passed the Shared Solar Program in 2020 to increase low- to moderate-income households’ access to clean energy, which the law defines as “no more than 80 percent of the median income of the locality in which the customer resides.”
As a five megawatt project, ESA’s Orange project hits the state’s maximum capacity for a community solar farm. If Dominion Energy consumers in Orange County subscribe to the solar farm, the program allows them to save a minimum of 10% on their electricity bill. As good as it sounds, the challenging part is reaching those who are eligible, according to Vandenbroeck.
ESA recognized early on that establishing relationships with local nonprofits can help spread the message among people in the low- to moderate-income bracket of shared solar’s reduced rates, according to Vandenbroeck.
This type of charitable outreach that ESA has intertwined with its projects is often as important to the success of a solar farm as the construction and other planning elements when it comes to garnering community support.
Solar projects, particularly in rural Virginia, have experienced significant local backlash in the past few years. Residents have protested energy developments based on aesthetic, environmental and other arguments despite the legislative push for more clean energy. A 59-acre solar facility proposal was struck down in Madison County in July and, a month prior, a large-scale farm in Dinwiddie County faced enough community opposition that the company withdrew its bid with the county’s planning commission.
These projects planned to cover more acreage than the Orange Road Solar Farm. However, ESA’s approach of engaging in conversations with the community and ensuring locals also see economic benefits has managed to ease this process, according to Vandenbroeck.
“One of our company values is to leave places better than you found it,” said Vandenbroeck. “There’s some people in our industry who struggle with that aspect, but I couldn’t imagine trying to do a project without talking to a single person. It’s much more advantageous to build relationships and take people’s concerns into consideration so that you can have a project that makes people happy.”
The Orange Road Solar Farm is currently waiting on a special use permit from the Orange County Planning Commission. The company hopes to obtain the permit sometime this spring and begin construction by the end of 2024. Construction is expected to take roughly four to six months.