CHARLES TOWN – A proposal to allow industrial solar energy collection facilities could affect as much as 75 percent of Jefferson County’s current open land, according to estimates of county zoning officials.

However, technical limitations of locating such large-scale energy generating facilities near key electrical infrastructure would significantly reduce the amount of open land that would be viable for such projects, according to some informal views expressed during a Jefferson County Commission workshop last week on the so-called zoning text proposal.

“They have to interconnect to the utility grid somewhere, and it’s most likely in a substation,” said Commissioner Josh Compton, who works as a consultant for rural electric cooperatives. “There are only specific substations in the county or they can tap into a transmission line. That significantly restricts as to where those things can be built.”

“The problem is the further away you get away from transmission lines or substations the costs start skyrocketing to where it’s probably not financially feasible,” he added.  

Compton’s comments arose during the nearly 90-minute workshop where county commissioners discussed the proposed zoning text amendment and heard a presentation about its potential implications from Zoning Administrator Alex Beaulieu.

Beaulieu said industrial solar energy facilities, also called solar farms, typically use about 200 to 800 acres.

“These types of facilities are driven by large tech companies who have goals in their long-term plans to go green,” she said. “So this type of facility is generally initiated by those types of industries or those businesses.”

Compton said his understanding was that electric utilities will sign “power purchase agreements” to purchase a set amount of solar power. “That’s generally how this occurs,” he said of large-scale solar power generating facilities.

He also said he wanted to learn from an electronic company representative about how much electricity the county’s electric utility infrastructure could accept from solar farms. “You can only pump so much electricity through a certain size line,” he said. “So I want to dispel some of the concerns that the entire county is going to become a solar farm.”

The proposed zoning ordinance text amendment would allow solar farms within the county’s commercial, industrial and residential zoning districts. The current proposal does not limit the size of solar farms.

Last Thursday the county commissioners, who as a body can approve, alter or reject the proposal altogether, posed as many questions as they found answers during the workshop. They agreed to hold another workshop on Aug. 20 at 1 p.m., when they hope to talk with solar power generation companies and electrical distribution utilities to learn more about legal and technological requirements and common business practices for solar farms.

The commissioners also said they wanted to hear from the county assessor to determine what local taxes solar farms might generate as commercial operations.

The public can observe the next upcoming workshop but not offer comment. A public hearing to accept residents’ comments in person has been scheduled for Friday, Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. Written comments should be sent to the county commission by Sept. 10 to be considered.

The proposed zoning change to allow solar farms has drawn public attention and comment in recent weeks. Some residents, including a few family farmers, support the zoning change to give farmers an option to diversify their agricultural income by leasing a portion or more of their land to solar energy companies. Advocates for allowing solar farms said such operations can avoid the county’s open private land from being permanently lost to housing developments.

Other residents have spoken out against the proposed zoning change over concerns that the county’s open land and landscape would be overrun with rows upon rows of dark panels of solar arrays.

Commissioner Ralph Lorenzetti, who cast a lone vote as a county planning commissioner member against a recommendation to adopt the proposed zoning change to allow solar farms, said his concerns deal primarily with ensuring that county farms preserve some element of an agricultural use even if they lease their land to a solar energy production company.

“I think the farmers have a need to have solar, my only concern is trying to keep the farm somewhat a farm,” he said.

The Jefferson County Planning Commission already held discussions, workshops and a public hearing before forwarding the proposed amendment for the county commission to decide its fate.  

Commissioner Jane Tabb, whose family operates a farm in the Leetown area, pointed out that the industrial solar industry is so new that there’s no track record of solar farms being returned to their original agricultural use. Solar farms should preserve the integrity of the soil until the land is used for agriculture again.

Tabb added that she read that West Virginia regulations limit the amount of solar electricity that electrical systems can accept and purchase. She said she also read that some solar companies already have application proposals filed to provide much of that electricity.

“So I guess there’s some competition to use these power lines or capacity in the power lines?” she asked herself as much as anyone. “I’m not sure.”

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