What is Strata Solar proposing for the Round Hill Solar Project?
Strata Solar, a recognized leader in the solar industry, is proposing to create a clean, safe, 83 megawatt (MW) solar facility in Augusta County that will help meet the region’s future energy demands and provide a sustainable future.
Where is the project located?
The project site is located in south-central Augusta County approximately 1.5 miles north of Stuarts Draft, east of White Hill Road (SR 654), west of Tinkling Spring Road (SR 608), and south of Christians Creek Road (SR 648). Guthrie Road (SR 652) bisects the site. The site is located predominately in a natural topographic depression which helps to limit offsite views.
Why was the Stuarts Draft area chosen for this project?
The Project’s proposed site was carefully selected based on a number of positive factors including the existing transmission line with capacity for onsite interconnect. The location’s GA zoning already allows for solar development consistent with Augusta County’s Comprehensive Plan keeping the interests of the County in mind. In addition, existing and planned new vegetative buffering in combination with planned setbacks along the property boundary limits visual impact for the few adjacent neighbors. As the site is located in a rural area, there are no nearby residential subdivisions further protecting the integrity of this community.
Who is the Project Applicant/Developer?
Strata Solar is developing the project via a wholly-owned subsidiary, Round Hill Solar, LLC.
When will the Project begin and complete construction?
Anticipated construction to begin in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Anticipated end of construction in fourth quarter of 2022.
How large is the Project Site?
The proposed project area will cover approximately 560 acres of land on an overall 880-acre site.
Who owns the land for the Project?
The property is currently owned by several private landowners, and is under long-term lease to Round Hill Solar, LLC.
How much energy is generated from an 83 MW facility?
The solar facility will generate enough clean, safe, renewable energy for approximately the equivalent of 14,000 homes.
Who is the general contractor for the Project?
Strata Solar will be the general construction contractor for the Project.
Will the site be buffered to limit its visibility from surrounding areas?
Yes. The proposed site was chosen for the project, because the rural site location, natural topography and site size allows for reasonable setbacks, all of which help to minimize visual impact. The project will install new vegetative buffers around the entire perimeter of the project where existing tree lines do not already exist, to further reduce visual impact.
What activity is currently occurring on the site?
The site is currently actively farmed and the surrounding area is rural with few immediate neighbors. According to the Augusta County Comprehensive Plan, the property is currently zoned as General Agricultural (GA) land, which permits solar facility development.
Will the site emit noise or be lighted at night?
No. The solar panels do not emit any detectable levels of noise and the site will not be lighted. At the project substation and switchyard, minimal security lighting may be utilized but will be quite limited and directed downward.
Will Strata use local labor for this project?
Strata will employ approximately 400 construction workers for the Round Hill Solar Project. Strata will hire as many local workers as possible, with the expectation that many of those workers can continue to work with Strata on other projects. In addition 8-10 permanent jobs will be created to maintain the high-tech equipment.
How will the Round Hill Solar Project benefit Augusta County?
In addition to creating construction and permanent jobs, the Project will provide over $6 Million of revenues directly to Augusta County, via a $1 Million siting contribution, over $4 Million in revenue share payments, and over $1.3 Million in potential increased tax payments. The project’s revenue can be used to help fund the County’s priorities through a dedicated yearly source of revenue from the project that may also be leveraged to provide long-term financing for major needs.
What are the benefits to the residents around the solar facility? Will there be any effect on the local electric rates?
The main benefit of the project to the local community is a new vibrant business providing tax revenues to the County and thus helping to keep residential property taxes low. The project will also provide a clean, efficient, low-cost energy to utility customers in the region. The cost of the electricity in Virginia is set by the Virginia State Corporation Commission in “rate cases,” and a significant element of the rate setting process is the cost of power to the utility. The cost of generation of power from this project is set for the life of the project, unlike a coal or natural gas plant that must purchase coal or natural gas on the market. Operating costs are minimal, including landscaping and equipment repair. The project will therefore have a positive effect on keeping the price of power low, as compared to other generation options, not just for Augusta County but for the entire state.
Can deer and other large animals move through the facility?
Of the 880 acres, only the 560-acre areas containing the solar arrays will be fenced with chain link fence as a security measure. However there are several areas, primarily along drainage and topographic features, which will not be fenced and will provide natural wildlife corridors to allow deer and other wildlife to continue to traverse those features. The existing transmission line does not have panels under it so wildlife will continue to be able to move under that corridor as well.
Will the site buffer use existing or new vegetation?
The site buffer will utilize both existing and new vegetation. The project will install new vegetative buffers around the entire perimeter of the project where existing tree lines do not already exist, to further reduce visual impact.
Will fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides be used on the site?
Strata may use some fertilizers to develop and maintain a healthy groundcover of grass and clover across the site and in developing good vegetative buffers. Strata will not utilize pesticides on the site. Most vegetation maintenance in panel areas will be via mowing, supplemented by some limited herbicide use around equipment if needed.
Does the site incorporate plans for soil erosion and stormwater management?
Yes, Strata Solar will design the site with stormwater, erosion and sedimentation control facilities pursuant to the regulations and permitting procedures of Augusta County and the VA Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Additionally, the project will be constructed in phases, to limit the amount of earthwork and grading occurring at any one time. Upon completion of construction, grass and clover will serve as ground cover under the panels protecting from soil erosion and a pollinator mix will be utilized in some adjacent buffer areas of the site.
Strata has also agreed to help fund an inspector whose function will be to monitor compliance with the erosion and stormwater management plans that will be required for any land disturbance.
What will happen to the existing project materials on the site once it is no longer operational?
During the final phase of a solar facility’s life, known as ‘decommissioning’, the areas of the site that contained the solar panels and any other areas disturbed will be restored to their original condition. All project materials will be removed from the site for recycling, re-use, or proper disposal. This process is the responsibility of the project owner, and Round Hill Solar will also post financial security prior to the start of construction to ensure sufficient funds are available to provide for decommissioning at the end of the project’s life.
What is the importance of utility-scale solar fields?
There are two main reasons for the focus on utility-scale solar systems: (1) cost and (2) scale.
From a cost perspective, smaller solar installations are much more expensive, producing less energy at a higher cost. The Commonwealth has encouraged the use of utility-scale solar to keep electricity costs down. The other main factor in this determination is the scale of renewable energy needed in the near future. To meet the Commonwealth’s energy plans at the desired time and magnitude, utility-scale solar systems must be constructed.
COMMENT: The visual buffering is insufficient and not compliant with the County’s Comprehensive Plan as it doesn’t hide solar panels from view.
RESPONSE: The Round Hill Solar project setbacks and buffering are in full compliance with the County’s zoning ordinance and Comprehensive Plan – both of which have been recently updated as it relates to utility scale solar projects. Round Hill’s setbacks and buffer plantings, taken together with the layout of the site, significantly mitigates the visual impact of the project from a number of vantage points, as demonstrated by the visual simulations of the project site. The mitigation of impacts, not unilaterally hiding panels from view from all vantage points, is exactly the point of the Comprehensive Plan.
COMMENT: Residential development lots in the area will be devalued due to visual impact.
RESPONSE: Numerous studies have demonstrated that solar projects do not negatively impact nearby property values, even when panels are visible. Strata included such a study as Attachment L to its application.
COMMENT: The Round Hill Solar project does not support the Comprehensive Plan goals of supporting agricultural operations or preserving agricultural lands.
RESPONSE: The Comprehensive Plan is a diverse guidance document, not zoning law that provides numerous, sometimes conflicting goals for the future of Augusta County. The Round Hill Solar project, as proposed, does not significantly impact the agricultural economy in Augusta County. The 880 acres that would be removed from agricultural use represents only 0.3% of the 330,000 acres of GA land in the county. As well, more than 300 acres of the site will remain unused and permanently in buffer areas. Finally, the site can be returned to agricultural use upon decommissioning. In essence, the project can be viewed as a form of long-term agricultural land preservation. This is significant as there is greater development pressure impacting the agricultural economy and lands from other uses that are permanent, such as growth of residential development. In addition, the County recently amended the Comprehensive Plan to expressly encourage carefully-sited utility-scale solar, and this project achieves that goal.
COMMENT: Chemical leeching into soils will contribute to destruction of topsoil.
RESPONSE: Solar panels do not contain toxic materials that will leach and as such will not impact soils, groundwater or runoff quality. This is a longstanding myth that has been dispelled by a number of reputable independent reviews – most notably a white paper produced by North Carolina State University that is included as Attachment K in our application.
Specific concerns have also been mentioned regarding potential zinc oxidation from the galvanized racking systems leeching into the soil potentially causing plant toxicity. It’s important to note that zinc is an essential plant nutrient, found naturally occurring in soils. Galvanized steel is a common construction material, used extensively in guardrails, chain link fencing, posts, signage and agricultural buildings, safely and effectively for decades. It is commonly used for these purposes throughout Augusta County. Galvanization by design allows zinc to oxidize – that’s the protective coating preventing the underlying steel from rusting. Studies have indicated its use in this way will not lead to plant toxicity.
COMMENT: The topsoil from the site will be stripped off and sold and/or destroyed, thus negatively impacting the site’s ability to be productive agricultural land upon decommissioning.
RESPONSE: This is not the case. Strata Solar cannot and will not remove topsoil from the project site. While grading will be done during construction it will be minimized to the extent practicable and the topsoil will be preserved on-site (stockpiled and reapplied at the end of construction in some areas) as it is an essential part of the project design and critical for maintaining healthy vegetation throughout the site.
COMMENT: How will panels be disposed of upon decommissioning – isn’t it a huge volume of toxic waste?
RESPONSE: The project will be able to be successfully decommissioned. Solar panels, like anything, do need to be recycled or disposed of properly, but they are not “toxic waste”. Solar panels are comprised of glass, aluminum, and silicon – a variety of materials that can be successfully recycled. The company is responsible for decommissioning, removing, and properly disposing or recycling/salvaging all of the project components including panels. A decommissioning plan has been submitted to the county. The plan provides monetary security to ensure sufficient funds are available at the end of the project’s life for proper decommissioning and reclamation. The surety amount excludes any salvage value estimates.
COMMENT: What kind of public engagement is available through the review process?
RESPONSE: Strata has encouraged and promoted an open public dialogue on its proposed Round Hill Solar project. Strata held an initial online community meeting to provide the community with an overview of the project and to answer questions about it. A website was created containing information on the project, answers to Frequently Asked Questions, all the materials that have been submitted to Augusta County and a means for contacting us directly. In addition, Strata has met either via phone, virtually or in-person with individuals wishing to discuss the project.
Augusta County also has a requirement to hold two public hearings, one before the Planning Commission (scheduled for January 12, 2021 at 7 p.m.) and one before the Board of Supervisors.
Strata remains available to discuss the project with anyone interested in learning more about it.
COMMENT: The loss of 880 acres of producing agricultural land will have a negative impact on the local agricultural economy.
RESPONSE: In August 2020, Strata Solar engaged Mangum Economics, a Richmond-based firm, to conduct an analysis of Round Hill Solar’s Economic and Fiscal Contribution to Augusta County.
The findings (Attachment H of our application) indicated that while the number of jobs may be less than an agricultural use, the solar jobs are higher-paying jobs that result in an increase in labor income to Augusta County by more than $100,000. Additionally, a solar use generates approximately 20 times more local tax revenue over a 35 year period than an agricultural use, for this project totaling more than $6 million over the project’s life.
Strata is sensitive to the agricultural nature of Augusta County. It is important to note, that Strata Solar’s 880 acres represents 0.3% of agriculturally-zoned land in the county. Additionally, when the site is decommissioned, it can be returned to an agricultural use.