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Solar farm proposal put on hold as county updates regulations

Solar farm proposal put on hold as county updates regulations

A proposal by renewable energy company Energix US to build a solar farm in Westlake has been put on hold. The company is postponing its application for several months to allow time for Franklin County to update its regulations on renewable energy companies.

Franklin County is one of several area localities that is facing a significant increase in applications from companies to construct solar farms. The demand is due to the Virginia Clean Economy Act passed in 2017 which requires utilities to provide carbon-free electricity to its Virginia customers by 2050.

Steve Sandy, assistant county administrator for Franklin County, said the county has had very little interaction with renewable energy companies in the past. With the growing interest in the past year, he said the county is looking to create a more defined set of rules for applicants such as setbacks from other properties, the types of buffers between properties and any necessary studies.

Other localities also have developed plans for revenue sharing with renewable energy companies. Sandy said the plan could bring in more revenue for Franklin County.

The proposed solar farm in Westlake would be on 220 acres off Virginia 122 near the Bettys Creek section of Smith Mountain Lake. Called Westlake Solar, the solar farm would place solar panels on 100 acres with the remaining property used for buffers and setbacks.

The property is being leased by Westlake Solar for the solar farm. The lease is expected to last for 35 years which is the expected lifetime of the solar farm.

Several residents expressed concern when first learning of the solar farm back in May. The Gills Creek representatives on both the Franklin County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission said the number of residents with concerns has grown in recent weeks.

Jim Colby, Gills Creek representative on the planning commission, said solar farms are a complex business that needs a greater understanding from the county before any proposals like Westlake Solar can progress. He said county representatives need time to get a firm grasp on the issue.

“It is my assessment that it will take several months or more,” Colby said.

Colby said his biggest concern was what kind of negative impact the solar farm could have on the county. He mentioned a solar farm currently under construction in Campbell County by Apex Clean Energy.

According to a report in the News & Advance last month, the solar farm is drawing criticism from local residents since construction began. Some of the biggest concerns has been increased runoff from the project into local streams.

Lorie Smith, Gills Creek representative on the board of supervisors, said the county needs more time to understand solar farms before they can move forward with any proposals like the one from Westlake Solar. “Simply put, we are just not ready,” she said.

Smith said she was also concerned about the location for Westlake Solar. She questioned if the solar farm should be located in an area that is likely best suited for residential development when there are many other locations around the county available.

Sandy said the county is expected continue working on updating its regulations on renewable energy for the next few weeks or months. Once finalized, he said the county will likely hold a public hearing to approve the updates. He said that could happen as soon as later this summer or early fall.

Once updated, Sandy said the proposal for Westlake Solar would be reintroduced.

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