By Brandon Martin
Henry County is quickly becoming a hotspot for the solar industry.
During a briefing of the current budget, County Administrator Tim Hall said the county is experiencing “a proliferation” of solar projects.
“They are popping up like kudzu,” he said. “Initially, localities received very little in the way of tax revenue from these projects. The General Assembly did tweak that this session, which has provided more opportunity for us to get tax revenue from those, but we are still trying to figure out what that is.”
The legislation, House Bill 2269, would allow localities to “assess a revenue share of up to $1,400 per megawatt on energy storage systems.”
After July 1, 2026, and every five years thereafter, “the maximum amount of the revenue share that a locality may impose on certain solar energy projects and energy storage systems shall be increased by 10 percent.”
Further, the bill states that “no increase may be made to any revenue share imposed by a locality on a solar energy project or energy storage systems for which an application has been filed with the locality and such application has been approved prior to January 1, 2021.”
Hall said that most of the projects go through Lee Clark, director of Planning, Zoning and Inspections.
He estimated “fewer than 10” but “more than five or six” projects are currently on Clark’s agenda.
“Privately owned acreage in the county currently under options with solar companies is about 20 to 30 times more space than what Crown Holdings is taking at Commonwealth Crossing,” Hall said. “Clearly, there is going to be a huge impact.” A balance of “being good for the environment” and “lack of accessibility to developable land.”
The State Corporation Commission (SCC) recently adopted new rules to open more opportunities for the development of small solar projects in Virginia that produce electricity to a shared group of subscribers.
“Community solar allows a developer of a small-scale solar project to subscribe eligible customers to purchase a share of the output of the solar facility,” according to a press release by the SCC. “The customer, through net metering, gets a bill credit from their utility company for the energy being supplied by the shared solar program.”
A few facilities have received special use permits from the Henry County Board of Zoning Appeals.
In January, the board unanimously approved a permit for Michaux Solar Center, LLC to operate a 50-megawatt (MW) utility-scale solar energy generating facility under development by Orsted Onshore North America.
Ryan Gilchrist, director of development for Orsted, touted the benefits for the county.
“One thing I’ll say about the project is it is fully beneficial to the county,” Gilchrist said. “Solar projects are inherently low-impact. There is no noise, very little visual impact. At the same time, we are creating jobs by the several dozen during construction, as well as a few during operations. There is significant tax and lease revenue for the county without putting any stress on the county with the land itself.”
The project, through the developer Vesper Energy, would construct a 200 MW solar energy facility across 21 discontinuous privately-owned parcels in Henry County. It would also include 16 parcels in Pittsylvania County.
Since the concept of renewable energy is to have a low impact on the environment, Gilchrist said solar is a good option.
“A lot of times, you have landowners who are looking to divest land, maybe with a younger generation that inherits it will try to sell it or do something with it,” Gilchrist said. “Solar allows them to keep it in the family for generations and actually have a sustainable revenue stream from it. In the long-term, solar can do a good job of maintaining the character of the land.”
Jamie Mears, the project developer, said the total land area for the project will be 600 acres.
She said the 50 MWs are “predicted to power approximately 10,000 homes annually.”
Mears said the project will also bring in $640,000 annually to both participating counties, with a 50/50 split in revenue.
Gilchrist said the revenue would be broken down further into a 50/50 split between the lease and taxes. At 25 percent, it would mean $160,000 in taxes for the county.
“Primarily, it is the tax on the equipment itself,” Gilchrist said. “Solar is classified as machinery and tools. There is legislation that passed last year that increased the tax on solar. It used to be you’d only reap 20 percent of that benefit, but now it steps up to 30 percent after five years.”
In February, the board also approved a project by Axton Solar, LLC.
Trey Lopez, assistant development manager, said a little over half of the project would be in Henry County. He added that 50 percent of the property taxes would also go to the county.
“Based on initial estimates over 35 years, we are looking at an average of $200,000 per year going to the county in additional property tax revenue,” Lopez said. “It’ll bring in additional construction jobs with approximately 12- to 14- months of construction. There will be additional revenue from those individuals purchasing food, hotels and that sort of thing.”
The county also has had other successes attracting solar developers.
Advance Energy Solutions, Inc, a Renewable Energy Technology company from Vinton, Virginia, recently purchased the building that once served as a Henry County Public Service Authority water plant and will locate its Solar & Wind Farm Protection control panel assembly operation to the facility.
The project will bring in $1.6 million in additional revenue and 15 new jobs, according to Pugazhenthi “Pugal” Selvaraj, president of Advance Energy Solutions.
“There are multiple reasons why the location (in Ridgeway) is perfect,” Selvaraj said. “One of the reasons is Henry County is very close to the Greensboro airport. It’s used easily as an access for international travel. That’s the primary one. Plus, it is closer to (U.S.) 220 and shipping is much easier. I can keep on adding for reasons why it’s a good spot, but I’d go on all day.”
Some of those reasons are opportunity-driven, according to Selvaraj.
“This is a part of Virginia that is not covered enough” with renewable energy products, he said. “We are in the race for solar energy. Currently, North Carolina is leading the race and Virginia is slowly behind it. When I researched, I found that Virginia doesn’t have very many solar or wind energy development companies.”
During the planning commission meeting to approve the project, Clark said that Selvaraj would become an “asset to the community both as an employer and as an entrepreneur.
“He’s intending on spending quite a bit of money to retrofit this building into a facility where they will assemble the final products,” Clark said. “In my conversations with him, he has lots more ideas for other products. The developer (Selvaraj) is spending his own money for this. The county doesn’t have any incentives or money invested in this. He is doing it on his own.”
Selvaraj will also use the building as a place to conduct research on new technologies.
Ved Jain, application engineer for the project, said the project is forward thinking “where every house or business is actually a power generator and not just a consumer.
“Even if it’s just a simple mailbox office,” he added. “It’s going to produce power because the roof it has can absorb sunlight.”
During a tour of the facility, Jain demonstrated a few of the technologies that will be developed and how the building will be retrofitted to eventually become net-zero for consumption. The concept can even apply to individual’s houses.
Jain said that consumers could see a dip in their electricity bill each month by accessing solar technology.
“The grid offers this sort of deal and you can sell them back the excess electricity, so you don’t really need to store anything,” he said. “The need for storage comes when you are doing something on a really massive scale. Households don’t need as much. A couple of solar panels, in the afternoon, will produce electricity that you cannot use. So, you sell it back to the grid. What the grid does is, they give you credit for the electricity that you just gave it back. And in the nighttime, when you are taking in excess, it’s going to take away from that bill.”