CHARLES TOWN – Solar and electric industry officials confirmed that Jefferson County’s terrain and the location of its major electrical infrastructure could accommodate only a small number of large-scale solar energy collection facilities.
Participating in a Jefferson County Commission workshop last week on the topic, representatives from FirstEnergy, the electrical utility serving all of Jefferson County and West Virginia, said that technical limitations with the utility’s electrical grid would prevent most county land from being viably used for industrial solar energy collection sites, also dubbed solar farms.
“I would say that Jefferson County would … potentially host a few [solar farm] projects, but [those would be] limited in size and limited in number,” offered Emily Dalager, a project development manager for EDF Renewables, a French company that has been producing industrial solar power across the world for about 30 years.
Solar and utility company representatives said they did not know how much county land or how many county locations could accommodate solar farm projects.
Dalager said most of those industrial solar projects use between 500 and 900 acres of open land. Flatland is typically required to allow solar farms to collect the most solar energy as efficiently as possible, she said. The projects also need to avoid environmentally and historically sensitive areas, such as wetlands and Civil War battlefields.
County commissioners asked electrical industry representatives for information while they evaluate a proposed zoning ordinance change that would permit solar farms. The proposal would permit solar farms—which generate solar energy to transfer into the local power grid—as a permitted commercial activity within various commercial, industrial and residential zoning districts.
About 75 percent of the county’s land could technically be subject to development as solar farms under the proposal, according to county zoning officials. However, commissioners wanted to learn how much county land could feasibly accommodate those projects.
Commissioner Josh Compton, a consultant for rural electric cooperatives, raised questions that various technical requirements for solar farms would likely drastically limit the number of those projects in the county. Compton and other commissioners are attempting to gauge citizen concerns raised over whether solar farms would widely replace crops and grazing cattle in the county’s private farm fields and open space.
Some farmers have asked to allow solar farm companies to temporarily lease their land to help their farms diversify their crop and agricultural income streams. That income diversification will help farmers avoid selling their rural land to residential developers, a step that would permanently reduce the county’s open agricultural land.
During last week’s workshop, Sam Gulland, a representative with Torch Clean Energy, a Colorado-based industrial solar project developer working with at least one farming family to possibly construct a solar collection facility in the Kabletown area, said such projects have to be within about a half-mile of a major power transmission line to be financially practical.
Gulland said such projects wouldn’t be feasible in the northern portion of Jefferson County, including the areas of Shepherdstown, Shenandoah Junction, Kearneysville or Middleway.
“In the northern part of the county I think the land is much more broken up in smaller parcels,” he said. “It would be very challenging [to establish solar farms] in most parts of the county.”
Dalager said it’s financially necessary to locate solar farms next to electrical substations. “Any further away you get from that adds lots of extra cash to the development,” she said. “Solar is thin margins and you’re going to avoid that extra cost where you can.”
“Solar is one of those things that as long as you are close to one of those [electrical transmission] lines it can make sense,” explained Matt Rosensteel, a FirstEnergy planning engineer who participated in the commission’s workshop. “But once you start getting away from a transmission line the dollar figure [cost for a solar farm project] goes up exponentially.”
Rosensteel, who said he could only “speak vaguely” because of security reasons, said FirstEnergy transmission lines run through the southern and eastern end of Jefferson County.
Solar energy projects that would most likely be viable near transmission lines are in the Millville area, he said.
Compton asked Dalager to clarify how much extra costs would mean to locate solar farms further away from such electrical utility infrastructure.
“You say extra costs, are we talking millions?” he asked.
“Yes,” Dalager replied.
“I think those two statements in itself have just cut out significant land in this county should this text amendment be approved, just from a financial standpoint it seems,” Compton offered afterward.
The county commission has scheduled a public hearing on the zoning proposal to allow solar farm developments.
After the public hearing, the commission can make changes to the proposal before adopting it, send the proposal back to the Planning Commission for more review or action, or decide not to allow solar farms at all.