The Botetourt County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a text amendment to the county code involving the Taxation of Solar Energy Generation Facilities (23-341) during the public hearings portion of the September meeting last week. Additionally, the board voted to approve (4-0) a commission permit and Special Exceptions Permit (SEP), with conditions, for a utility-scale solar energy facility to be located in Buchanan on Pattonsburg Lane. Buchanan Supervisor Amy White recused herself from voting on the commission permit and SEP as the proposed facility presented “a conflict of interest” involving her family’s property in Buchanan.
A subsection of the text amendment states that solar photovoltaic facilities less than five megawatts in alternating current generating capacity shall be exempt from taxation on the following portions of their values: For the first five years after commencement of operation, 80%; for the second five years of operation, 70%; and 60% thereafter. Solar photovoltaic facilities that serve the electricity needs solely of property on which they are located, as provided in section 15.2-2288.7 of the Code of Virginia, 1950, as amended, are exempt from taxation on 100% of their value.
The tax rate applied to the taxable portion of the fair market value of solar photovoltaic facilities mentioned in this subsection, if any, shall be the same as the real estate tax rate for the county. The commissioner of the revenue shall assess the fair market value of the solar photovoltaic facilities mentioned in this subsection as real, personal, or public service corporation property in the manner provided by general law.
In the administrator’s comments read by Deputy Administrator David Moorman, state law provides for local revenue collection from solar generation facilities either through 1) local taxation, or 2) by exempting them from local taxation and receiving a share of facility revenues. Localities may elect the method of their choice.
Following Moorman’s reading of the administrator’s notes, a citizen asked the board for clarification on who will be taxed. County attorney Mike Lockaby explained that solar generating facilities “are subject to taxation at different rates and different assessment methodologies.”
An estimation of comparative revenues from the two methods is attached in the meeting’s agenda packet. The analysis projects that the county would realize more revenue by taxing solar energy generation facilities than by participating in revenue sharing.
Virginia law allows localities to tax solar generation facilities similar to other public service corporations which what the amendment achieves. To implement a local tax, the county’s tax code needed to be amended to add a tax on solar generation facilities.
Last spring, the county approved text amendments regarding solar energy facilities adding small-scale, minor-scale roof, minor-scale ground, and utility-scale solar energy facilities as permitted land uses, along with associated definitions, regulations, and permitting requirements.
The goal of the previous text amendments for local solar energy facilities was to create an ordinance that allows for the permitting and regulation of solar energy facilities while maintaining the rural nature of the county. Solar energy facilities were originally not listed as a permitted or special exception use in the current version of the zoning ordinance, according to the May 2023 agenda packet.
The SEP conditions state that the solar farm construction will include traffic detail, limits on the hours of construction, limits on the lighting during construction, limits of mitigation of dust and burning operations, and a storage plan. TotalEnergies will coordinate with the chief of Botetourt Fire & EMS developing emergency operations planning. The SEP will not exempt the use from meeting the requirements of the county’s noise ordinance.
TotalEnergies is a broad energy company that produces and markets fuels, natural gas, and electricity. According to the presentation last week, more than 50% of the company’s research and development focuses on new energies.
County Planner Nick Baker presented the proposal to the board noting that the property was previously used in an agriculture capacity. The project area will be 16.74 acres containing 11,160 solar panels, two concrete electrical pads containing transformers, inverters, and switchgears. An eight-foot-tall security fence will be placed around the perimeter of the project area. The ordinance requires that any panels and accessible equipment be no taller than 20 feet in height.
The application shows a maximum height of 15 feet for all structures and coded in anti-glare technology. Baker noted that the noise generated from the facility would “be about the same noise level generated by a household refrigerator… So, no noise at all.” He pointed out that all vegetation on the property will remain undisturbed.
Alex Fox, a representative of TotalEnergies, stated in a waiver that the layout of the property is enough to shield the visual impact with surrounding properties. The proposed project participates in the state’s limited Community Solar pilot program.
Customers who enroll in the program will choose to pay a premium to purchase energy and Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) from solar facilities located in communities throughout Virginia. This supports the growth of local solar energy and reduces customers’ carbon footprint.
Fox explained that a remote solar array will be installed. The electricity generated will be available to the community. Dominion Energy customers will have the chance to subscribe or “own shares” of the solar farm, enabling them to save money on their electrical bills if they choose to participate.
Board Chair Dr. Mac Scothorn asked for Fox to explain what the company means by “owning shares.” Fox explained that energy from the solar facility is “fed” into the electrical grid creating “credits” for customer subscription. Participants will be assigned those credits and they’ll see the value of those credits subtracted off their Dominion electric bill. TotalEnergies will later bill customers based on those credits for a price less than what they would pay Dominion. Once the solar farm reaches commercial operation, the credits will be available to customers in the area, according to Fox.
The proposed project will reduce electric costs for low- to moderate-income households in Botetourt. It will also increase revenue for the county without putting any additional strain on infrastructure, create ecological benefits by creating a pollinator habitat, and provide educational opportunities for students in Botetourt, according to Fox.
The educational piece to the solar farm provides local schools with an opportunity to better educate students on how solar energy works. “Project Lead the Way” is a program provided to schools by TotalEnergies that helps students build problem-solving skills and connect the dots between math and science concepts and real-world applications through activities. Fox added that the company will provide educational resources and guest instructors through a grant from TotalEnergies.
Fox provided the proposed layout and shared questions answered from a recent community meeting. Baker added that the county received “several comments” in support of the request. Some citizens are concerned with traffic issues that could be generated during the construction phase of the project. He stated that vehicular traffic will be limited to the daily project site. The construction phase is projected to last six to nine months.
The representative stated that the company “will not try” to bring in large trucks to the site. The plan is to lease an area offsite for large trucks to offload onto smaller trucks for transfer to the project site. Fox understands there will be increased traffic and they are taking measures to mitigate traffic issues.
In terms of decommissioning, the anticipated life of the solar energy project is 25-35 years. The decommissioning cost is $448,245, based on 2023 labor rates, equipment rates, and labor rates for salvaging materials (RSMeans). The decommissioning process is estimated to take approximately two months.
Fincastle Supervisor Dr. Richard Bailey asked Fox about TotalEnergies plans in retaining ownership of the project. Fox stated that they are a utility and have no plans to sell the facility once construction is completed.
Citizen comments during the hearing were in support of the solar farm project. To watch the public hearings from last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, visit Botetourt County’s YouTube page (youtube.com/@botetourtcountyva) and click on the “LIVE” stream tab below the channel’s header.
To read more from last week’s meeting agenda, visit the Botetourt County website’s Agenda Center (botetourtva.gov/AgendaCenter).