A planned solar farm in Albemarle County that could conservatively power more than half of the county’s households is well on its way to a ground-breaking within the next year.
County supervisors and the project’s developer say the 650-acre, 35-megawatt Woodridge Solar project in southeastern Albemarle can, and should, be a model for other communities.
“We’re really on the forefront of doing things. It’s the beginning. I think it’s going to set us up for a standard for the commonwealth of what we can do and what can be done,” Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley said at an April 5 county meeting. “Is it enough? No. We probably need more. But, this is the beginning.”
Solar energy projects elsewhere in Virginia have been stalled or stopped completely.
But at the April 5 meeting, the solar farm won unanimous approval for two special use permits that would allow for additional grading in construction of the project and the construction of a power station to allow the project to be connected to nearby power lines.
It’s not the last time the project developer, Charlottesville-based Hexagon Energy, will have to work with the county as it prepares for installation.
“The county will have more involvement — in particular, a site plan has to be submitted,” Board of Supervisors Chair Donna Price told The Daily Progress on Friday. “What we’ve seen basically is the general concept. What they now need to submit is a site plan that will provide more specificity.”
But Price, who represents the county’s Scottsville Magisterial District where the project is planned, said it is the last time the supervisors will have to vote on the matter for the foreseeable future.
She described the site plan process as “administrative action,” a responsibility of county staff, the Community Development Department in particular.
“The board likely does not have any further action,” Price said. “If the applicant were to make some changes, that would fall back to the category of legislative action that requires board approval.”
“It’s no different than if you were building a house and you were approved for a permit,” she said. “That’s not the end of it; the county still has to do inspections.”
Hexagon Energy is heading into that process with confidence after fielding resounding support from county supervisors as well as the majority of community members who have spoken publicly about the project.
Much was made of the fact that the $220 million solar farm will produce enough energy to power 25,000 households — more than half of the county’s 45,000 households.
“That’s conservative,” Scott Remer, Hexagon’s director of development, told supervisors on April 5. “I’ve seen some other estimates produced by third parties that put it more at 30,000.”
That’s not to say that Albemarle residents will be the sole benefactors of the energy produced at the Woodridge Solar project. Some of that energy will travel outside of the county; that’s just the nature of power grids.
“We have no control over where that energy goes,” Price told The Daily Progress. “Once it is up and operating, Albemarle County does not have authority over the dissemination of that electricity. That kind of regulation would come more through the state.”
Price said it is worth noting that when it comes to energy, Albemarle has historically been more of a taker than a giver.
“While we may not necessarily benefit in Albemarle from every watt produced, at least we’ll be contributing to energy production,” Price said. “Just as we currently benefit from energy produced somewhere else.”
One of those energy-producing places was nearby Fluvanna County. The Bremo Bluff Power Station built there in 1931 had been one of the oldest, if not the oldest, coal-fired power station in Virginia before Dominion Energy announced it would be retiring the plant in 2019. Demolition of the plant began in late 2021, and now millions of tons of coal ash must be removed.
Bremo has been a good reminder, Price said, of the considerations that need to take place before projects, even solar projects, can be approved.
“There is an environmental impact from this industrial solar installation,” Price acknowledged. “There is a negative environmental impact from everything we do, and many things we don’t do. It all has to be put into balance.”
Many at the April 5 meeting lauded the balance struck by the Woodridge Solar project.
Hexagon plans to install roughly 650 acres of solar panels on 2,300 acres of privately owned timberland that has seen its soil condition severely depleted over the years. The land has been regularly called a “moonscape” by both its neighbors and the project developers.
Part and parcel of Hexagon’s plans for the 2,300-acre site is revitalizing the landscape: restoring the streams that run through the property, fertilizing the soil and planting new vegetation.
That vegetation could be used to attract pollinators such as bees, opening up the opportunity for mead production if the land is found viable for beekeeping operations, Hexagon has said. Hexagon has also floated a sheep-farming operation at the site once the vegetation has grown in, reducing the need for gas-powered mowers to maintain overgrowth.
Remer said the company has already been in discussions with local farmers interested in such projects.
“There’s a lot of conservation that goes into this,” Remer told supervisors on April 5, “from a cutover moonscape, right now, to about 500 acres of meadow habitat — and that’s not even counting the clover and plants and flowers and grasses that are under the panels.”
While the solar panels are slated for 650 acres of the site, there will still be plenty of space under and between them for nature. Hexagon has emphasized, on multiple occasions, how little space the actual solar panels take up.
“If you were to sum up all the panels and put them in one big flat surface — which is impossible and would be a nightmare for stormwater — but were you to do such a thing, it would be about 200 acres altogether,” Remer said. That’s less 9% of the total 2,300-acre site.
Stormwater considerations are a major component of the next steps for Hexagon.
Remer promised supervisors on April 5 that Hexagon has planned buffers near the streams on the Woodridge property to prevent additional stormwater runoff. The vegetation planted under and around the panels, he said, will also help reintroduce groundwater infiltration in the area.
Stormwater has been a sticking point for solar projects in Virginia.
Last year, the commonwealth’s Department of Environmental Quality rolled out a number of changes to how Virginia manages runoff from solar farms, arguing that prior policies underestimated the farms’ impact on water quality.
Previously, Virginia considered only the bases of solar panels to be impervious surfaces unable to absorb runoff. The Youngkin administration, however, has made it so that the solar panels themselves are considered impervious surfaces.
Stormwater played a major role in the Culpeper County Planning Commission’s decision in January to deny a North Carolina developer’s plan to build a solar plant on private agricultural land along a high-power Dominion transmission line. It was the third time Maroon Solar’s project has been denied, and the third time managing water at the site has been a contributing factor in its denial.
In March, Amherst County’s planning commission denied an Energix proposal to build a solar array in Piney River, citing environmental concerns and the impact on scenic views.
Earlier this month, Culpeper planners deferred action on another solar project, this one from North Ridge Culpeper Solar LLC, arguing the company’s 238-page application was incomplete, including information about management of rainwater on the property and potential flooding impacts downstream and to neighboring parcels.
In Madison County, a Louth Callan Renewables solar project that would feed into the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative grid has been going back and forth for years. Residents have voiced concerns over zoning, tree buffers and a proposal to let sheep graze the property not unlike Hexagon’s.
Remer acknowledges Hexagon has a lot of work ahead of it, even in Albemarle County where the response to its project has been largely positive. However, he said, he is confident that Hexagon and Albemarle have the expertise and working relationship to achieve at Woodridge what other communities have struggled to accomplish.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Remer told supervisors on April 5. “Before we get any sort of stormwater sign-off, there’s a lot of work that county engineers and our engineers are going to have to work through to get this to work right. Albemarle County has that skill level to be able to help enforce it.”