LIVE OAK — With one solar farm already open in Suwannee County and another under construction, the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners pumped the brakes last week on green lighting a third solar farm.
At the board’s July 15 meeting, it heard a request for a special exception to allow Innovative Solar to begin work on a 236-acre solar farm in McAlpin on current agricultural land that is expected to produce 30 megawatts of electricity, or the equivalent of powering between 10,000 to 15,000 homes according to a company representative. After a lengthy discussion on the topic, the board approved continuing the hearing to its Aug. 6 meeting.
Commissioner Len Stapleton asked for additional time to consider the request, in part to get a better understanding of the process with constructing solar farms.
Stapleton said the caution stems from concerns expressed by residents near the project in Wellborn that is underway that will be a 800-acre (74.5 MW) solar plant for Florida Power & Light. Duke Energy already has a 70-acre (8.8 MW) solar plant in Falmouth.
“I just have some questions and concerns,” Stapleton said, adding that it impacts other landowners in the area, a point County Administrator Randy Harris seconded while noting it makes the land use question an important one throughout the county.
“I’m all in favor of solar and I’m all in favor of doing things that are good for the county,” Stapleton added.
Commissioner Don Hale wanted to know why Suwannee County had seemingly become a prime destination for these fields of solar panels.
Mike Hill, with Innovative Solar, said he couldn’t speak for the other companies that are operating solar farms in the county, but their interest was because of the Butler family reaching out to them about putting one on some of their property, which would be leased by Innovative Solar.
Hill said the site fits everything the company initially looks for during the process: a level and cleared property with electrical transmissions lines running through it or near it.
He noted Innovative Solar has already begun discussions with Duke Energy about purchasing the power generated at the site.
Hill also said the site itself handles some of Stapleton’s concerns with natural barriers already existing and the company would be willing to fill in gaps with additional trees and vegetation.
Hill added that solar farms don’t add any extra burden on the county as far as providing services. But, the solar plant would lead to a significant increase in tax revenue for the county, he said.
How much, though, is not known.
Hill said that it will matter on how much the construction costs but initial estimates are the county and school district would receive a combined amount in between $150,000-$175,000 in the first year following a question from resident Bo Hancock about how significant the increase would be, noting the state offers a rebate for solar facilities.
“That is based on current tax rates,” Hill said, adding it was based on approximately a $45 million construction cost.
Ronnie Richardson, the commissioner for District 5 where the proposed solar farm would be built, said his biggest concern is the nature of 192nd Street in that area — the solar farm is proposed near the intersection of 200th Street, 77th Road and 192nd Street. Hill said the company would be willing to access the site from whichever direction the county prefers and also would be willing to help repair any damage done to the roads following a pre- and post-construction evaluation.
“I can think of a whole list of roads that I’d love for you to drive over if you’re going to fix them after,” Harris said with a laugh.
Ricky Gamble, the board chairman, said he also would like to see the board devise a plan that would have to be met by future solar projects in order to make sure they meet the county’s standards.
Gamble, though, also said he didn’t have a problem with this project.
“This is local people, farming, and just looking for another way to make a living off of their property,” Gamble said. “This is just another avenue for them.”
“To me, it’s a good fit,” he said noting most of the area surrounding the location are farms.
Resident John Koch also encouraged the board to approve the application, both due to the fit in the area as well as noting that it’s a solar “farm” in a farming community.
“Please vote for this particular project,” he said.