Virginia's Solar Farm

Apr 16, 2015

Jim Johnson on his farm.

Virginia is juggling a host of contentious alternative energy proposals. An offshore wind farm, hydrofracking in a national forest and a 550-mile gas pipeline that cuts through the state.

But there's one project on the Eastern Shore that has moved along quietly despite being the largest of its kind in the state.

Four years ago Tom Tuffey and a team from Pennsylvania-based Community Energy Solar were looking for a place to build an 80 Megawatt solar farm that could supply 20,000 homes with electricity. They needed the right land, lots of sun, and a cost effective connection to the electrical grid.

“We just essentially said, where can we have all these factors come together?  And the answer was down the DelMarVa Peninsula,” said Tuffey.

Historic Accomack County hit all the marks. Flat farmlands with the Chesapeake Bay on one side, the Atlantic on the other. It's best known for its Chincoteague Island beaches and wild ponies, and more recently rocket launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. The largest employers here are the local Tyson and Purdue chicken processing plants. The $150 million solar farm will bring 400 - 500 temporary construction jobs.

“Like you see from all the way down there all the way to over there will all be solar panels and they'll all be setting and going right across with the sun,” says  Jim Thompson, a former farmer who is among a dozen landowners to sign leases for nearly 1,000 acres to create what is now Eastern Shore Solar. 

Thompson used to cover his taxes by leasing to farmers. Earlier this year, as he walked his snow covered field, a bald eagle coasted overhead. “With this I'll do better than paying the taxes on the land, I've got a guaranteed contract for 30 years, and hopefully I can pass this on to my son and also kind of feather my nest for my retirement.’

Farming is emblematic of Accomack and so is that bald eagle on Thompson's farm. Each season major bird migrations bring tourists. Reneta Major heads the Board of Supervisors.

“We are thinking out of the box. Our major industry here is agriculture, aquaculture. There was some apprehensions about wildlife because of this,” says Major.

A study put to rest wildlife concerns. But Grayson Chesser, also on the Board of Supervisors, says Accomack farmland is becoming more valuable. He isn't happy to see it used for something else.

“They say it will bring in about an extra $100,000 a year, which is nothing to sneeze at but still, in the big scheme of things, that's maybe a starting salary for three teachers or two dump trucks, nothing to get that excited about,” says Chesser.

To sweeten the deal, the county was given several proffers, including $100,000 to purchase its own a solar power facility. Another $100,000 will be used to remove derelict buildings that have plagued the county. In the end, the board unanimously approved Virginia's largest solar farm.

Kristen Trembley assistant county planner has some advice for other counties. “Do your research. There's so many different variables and impacts that might happen to your community.”

Eastern Shore Solar also will be the first company to test a permitting process created by the General Legislature six years ago that's supposed to make it easier for private alternative energy companies to do business in Virginia.

You can see the solar farm documents that Accomack County has, posted here.