MOUNT JACKSON – A major solar farm project is under new management and looking to expand. Matthew Gilliland, a project developer with Cypress Creek Renewables, is handling the 220-acre expansion project for Robert and Eleanor Whitehurst.
Last year, both the Mount Jackson Town Council and Planning Commission approved a 160-acre solar farm project off of Turkey Knob Road. Cypress Creek Renewables purchased the project from Virginia Solar LLC in May. The total solar farm acreage will be 380 acres if the Planning Commission approves the forthcoming applications.
“A lot of these small development shops don’t have the capital necessary to pay for the equipment,” Gilliland said. “So they will partner with someone like us. We will pay them for the project, and we take it from there.”
Jeff McKay, director of public relations for Cypress Creek Renewables, said they would be investing about $25 million into the Mount Jackson projects.
Gilliland and the Whitehursts on Monday updated the Planning Commission on the status of the project — Mount Jackson Solar 1 — and announced their intent to apply for two more permits. Mount Jackson Solar 2 and Mount Jackson Solar 3 will be on land adjacent to the original project.
According to Gilliland, Cypress Creek is working on 20 other projects in Virginia. Cypress Creek is the third largest solar firm in the U.S. and has over 250 projects — the oldest of which is about four years old.
Mount Jackson Solar 1 is Cypress Creek’s most developed project in Virginia. Ground will be broken on the project in the middle of next year, Gillibrand said.
Mount Jackson Solar 1 hit a snag earlier this year when it came under state review for a number of “deficiencies.”
Gilliland was not available for comment before publication on the state of those deficiencies.
Despite general agreement that the solar farm would be good for Mount Jackson, some commissioners and council members had misgivings.
Whitney Miller, a Planning Commission member, expressed concern about the newness of Cypress Creek as a company as well as the new face of a project just over a year old.
“At what point does someone take this and say, ‘we’re doing it?’” Miller asked.
The process for starting a solar farm in Virginia takes about four years from signing a lease agreement to operating a farm, Gilliland said.
Before any construction begins, companies run studies with Dominion Energy — Virginia’s leading energy provider — on impacts the farm will have on the power grid, Gilliland said. At the same time, companies run environmental studies to ensure the soil can support the hardware as well as check for any endangered species or vulnerable populations in the area.
After another round of impact studies with Dominion and completing the Permit by Rule process — an environmental permit issued by Virginia — construction can begin.
“Once the ball starts rolling, it’s really a year to a year and a half when we start our work and when it’s finished and fully operational,” McKay said.
Mary Major, of the renewable energy program with the state Department of Environmental Quality, said in an email the agency hadn’t issued enough permits to say how long the process usually takes.
Culpeper County planning commissioners found themselves in a similar situation to Mount Jackson earlier this month. They rejected Cypress Creek Renewables’ 160-acre project. Culpeper officials wrote the project was not in accord with the county’s comprehensive plan.
Another Mount Jackson commissioner, Judy Fultz, sounded doubtful the solar farm would bring prosperity to the town.
“It would be five years of land use taxes, not taxes,” Fultz said. “That will affect the town and then that will be all. I don’t know how significant that will be.”
Monetary benefits aside, Fultz was also worried about the number of long-term jobs the farm would bring. While the construction of two additional plants will create more than 100 jobs, only five or six will be long-term, Gilliland said.
Because of the technical nature and special permitting required, it isn’t guaranteed a local construction company will work on the project.
“Some of the work is very technical and has to be done in a way that results in a safe project,” Gilliland said. “We certainly aim to engage and attract local bidders, which is one of the reasons I’m here. We’re always looking for companies that might be interested, and we’ll keep their name on a list.”
Robert Whitehurst said the project prepares the town for the future. He said the project would draw industrial work to the area as well as more people while investing in clean, renewable energy, “which is greatly needed in the country.”
“This project would give the long-term, smart growth we heard a lot of people wanting,” he said. “It’s long-term growth while making the town, the entire community, look good because this is the future.“
Gilliland and the Whitehursts will submit the formal applications for expansion on Oct. 1.