An 80-acre solar farm is planned on a 136-acre rural parcel just south of Batesville on the west side of Craigs Store Road, according to details presented at a February 24 public meeting. Dubbed the Midway Solar Center, the facility will be designed and constructed by Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe Development on land owned by Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC). The project will be the first of its kind in Albemarle County, as Albemarle’s hilly terrain is not always appropriate for this type of installation.
“Topography is one of the major factors we look at when we site projects,” said Sun Tribe Senior Project Developer Bobby Jocz, “along with the distance to an available substation and the capacity and types of power lines that run near the site. We also look to make sure the site doesn’t have major stream or wetland infrastructure, and we identify any wildlife and cultural historic resources to make sure we protect those.”
Midway Solar Center will be an eight-megawatt AC solar energy facility with a four-megawatt AC battery storage system on site. Sun Tribe says it will produce enough energy to power approximately 2,600 homes for a year and will connect to distribution lines on the site. “Battery storage is a fairly up-and-coming, add-on component for these systems,” said Jocz. “One of the benefits of pairing solar plus storage is that it allows the co-op [in this case CVEC] to choose when the power goes onto the grid, and thus provides more flexibility.”
The many thousands of solar panels—each four feet wide by six feet long—will be arranged in rows on posts, typically between eight and fifteen feet high. “What we’re proposing is a single axis tracking system, which basically looks like rows of panels arranged along a driveline and oriented north to south, with the short ends of the panels pointing to the east and west,” said Jocz.
“They track the sun as it moves across the sky but the movement is almost imperceptible if you were just watching from the site,” he said. The panels are not flashy or shiny, because their job is to absorb sunlight, not to reflect it. Observing from a distance, said Jocz, “You might equate it to an open body of water. If you fly over, it would reflect just like a lake.”
At the public meeting, several neighbors to the planned site called in to ask questions about lighting at night, construction traffic, plans for a vegetative barrier, and the project’s impact on property values. Jane Fellows, whose neighborhood borders the site on the south side, said she expected a “differential in property value effect based on the facility’s visibility” from a particular property. “If the facility is tucked in behind existing vegetation then it’s not a big factor, but if it’s visible then it is,” she said.
To protect the viewshed, Midway’s plan includes using existing and newly-planted “vegetative screening” (i.e., evergreen trees) along the property borders closest to existing residences. Sun Tribe representatives showed slides of before-and-after screening at the boundaries, but those views depicted the trees as fully grown, whereas county zoning ordinances only require a minimum planting height of four feet, which would not be sufficient to screen off the panels until several years after installation. Jocz said that Sun Tribe was open to alternatives to adequately screen the facility.
Neighbor Paul Miller inquired about the possibility of allowing livestock to graze on the grass underneath the panels in a mutually beneficial relationship with nearby farmers. “There are various maintenance options,” said Jocz. “Mowing is one, and there are programs that allow for sheep grazing underneath the panels. Another approach is to plant native pollinators, which would require less maintenance.”
In response from neighbor Doug Gellman about lighting from the solar farm disrupting the dark night skies that rural residents treasure, Sun Tribe Vice President of Development Mike Stanton said that the facilities require minimal maintenance and the lights are mostly focused on interconnection equipment. “The fixtures are shielded so the light does not spill out, and can be motion-activated so they are rarely on,” said Stanton. There will be virtually no regular employees on site and no noise from the facility, as the solar panels operate quietly and unmanned.
County planner Bill Fritz noted that no construction traffic would be routed through Batesville—it would instead come from Rt. 151, and that construction activity would be limited to daylight hours and possibly some Saturdays. Sun Tribe has a formal plan for decommissioning the solar energy facility at the end of its useful life (30 to 35 years), which means that everything constructed on the site will be removed and recycled and the land will revert to empty fields.
As the county considers approval of a Special Use Permit for the facility, Fritz noted that one factor for denial would be the “very high bar” of “substantial impact” to surrounding properties. “Substantial impact would mean the impact is so severe that it denies the right of others to use their property, like a terrible odor next to a restaurant,” said Fritz. “A project could also be denied if it is inconsistent with the character of the area, which is a lower bar.”
Sun Tribe CEO Danny Van Clief ended the meeting with a promise to take great care in respecting the community’s concerns with respect to this project. “We want this to be a very positive legacy project for us and we know we need to get this right for our neighbors,” he said. “The greenspace and the rural character drew us here, and we’ll protect those things as well.” The next steps in the process are a Planning Commission public hearing sometime before April 19, followed by a Board of Supervisors hearing.