The multinational behind a proposed solar energy project in Limestone Township assured the Union County Commissioners on Tuesday that the project would have minimal disruption to farmland, which will return to a natural state in about 30 years after the equipment's lifespan would.
Headquartered in San Francisco, Pattern Energy is looking for leases to access approximately 800 acres of private land, according to company representatives Donnie Johnson and Ian Evans.
Of this, Evans estimated that about 100 acres would be developed for a solar farm – the remainder being the remainder of the owners' respective parcels – which would generate about 80 megawatts of power for the PJM multi-state power grid.
That is enough energy to supply around 15,000 households with electricity, according to a company website for the proposed project www.limestonesolar.com.
Johnson said construction could start as early as late 2021 and commercial power generation could start late 2022.
Evans told Commissioner Stacy Richards that lease negotiations are active and that not all targeted packages have been secured. Because of this, he wouldn't say exactly where the packages are. The company is not a utility and does not have significant domain powers, he added.
“In Union County, much of our economy is based on agriculture and tourism,” said Richards. “Have you thought of looking at land that is neither agricultural nor forested?”
“We don't want to clear trees,” replied Evans, explaining that agricultural land can be used ideally and specifically because it is open and largely flat. Locations searched are also determined based on location to a transmission line, he said.
Solar collectors, which stand on masts and are driven into the ground, are connected with cables that are laid in underground trenches and connected to the power grid with an overhead line. The land under the panels would be planted with vegetation to stabilize the soil.
Johnson estimated the project would result in more than 100 temporary works: machine operators, electricians, and workers among other contractors. An unknown number of sustained “well-paid” maintenance jobs would also result in the project site being maintained.
“For the construction phase, we're working on hiring as local staff as possible,” Johnson said, adding that workers would be hired through local job fairs and referrals from local trade schools.
Without the extension of the rental contracts and the replacement of solar modules and the associated infrastructure, the project would expire in around 30 years. Both representatives stated that the company was contractually bound to the tenants to clear the land and return it to a natural state.
That would largely consist of clearing the land of solar panels, removing cables, and the chain link fences that would surround the modules. At the owner's request, they would remove or leave gravel roads and add fresh topsoil.
Shanon tribe from the Union County Conservation District inquired about the classification and clearing of the land. Evans said this was something the company is trying to avoid. Since the panels are on poles and do not require cement foundations, they can be installed on slight slopes. He said some areas may need to be flattened or filled.
Cindy Kahley, also from the nature reserve, said agricultural fields are often treated with chemicals to prevent weed growth and the like, which could make it difficult for stabilizing vegetation to gain a foothold. She raised concerns about the possible runoff of rainwater into neighboring areas.
Evans said the restoration of the topsoil is being negotiated with the owners. Due care will be taken to ensure stabilization, he said. Appropriate environmental permits from local, state and federal authorities are required for the project. In Limestone Township, however, there is no zoning that would regulate the construction of the site.
Evans told Richards that the project was being reviewed with PJM but wasn't sure where the process was. He added that Pattern is still trying to get leases in hopes of getting the entire project area in Limestone Township.