Solar farms are rising in Pittsylvania County

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce
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Pittsylvania County has become a magnet for solar farm
developers, says David Smitherman. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Pittsylvania County has a long history as an agricultural center, and farmers there, like others everywhere, are now looking for additional income. Many in Pittsylvania have applied for special-use permits for utility-scale solar farms, eight of which have been approved since 2017.

“The majority of those permits were granted in the last 12 months,” says County Administrator David Smitherman. A solar farm is a safe investment that “minimizes risk and guarantees returns,” he says. “A solar company will rent the land from 20 to 30 years.”

Pittsylvania County is a magnet for solar farm developers. It is Virginia’s largest county by landmass, with 969 square miles, and is well positioned to produce solar energy, says Jason Grey, Danville’s director of utilities.

Whitehorn Solar LLC is developing a 45-megawatt solar farm on 700 acres in Gretna. The solar farm, which is expected to begin operation next year, will power Amazon Web Services data centers.

Only one solar farm is currently operational in Pittsylvania: a 6-megawatt facility in Ringgold approved in 2016 that provides electricity for the city of Danville.

Aside from landowners earning income from solar farms, the county sees some financial benefits because the lower assessed agricultural land rate program switches to the regular property tax rate of 62 cents per 100 acres when land is leased for a solar project, notes Greg Sides, assistant county administrator for planning and development. “The solar company will also be charged a rollback tax for the previous five years.”

It’s not a windfall for localities, though, since solar companies pay just 20 cents on the dollar on a machine and tools tax, and once panels deteriorate over the years, their value depreciates.

The verdict is still out, says Smitherman, whether adding solar will be a net positive over the years for the county.”

So far, there hasn’t been any organized opposition or even concerns voiced by Pittsylvania residents, unlike in Culpeper County, where California solar developer BayWa faced fierce opposition from locals on environmental and property-rights grounds.

“Looking at it from a utility perspective, I don’t see a downside to solar right now,” says Grey. “At the end of the day that is why we do it — to drive our power cost down.”

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