By Jeff Poole
Four years ago, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a special use permit submitted by SolUnesco for a 663-acre, 62.5 megawatt utility scale solar facility in eastern Orange County.
In the four years since, SolUnesco sold what was titled the “Madison Solar” project to Cypress Creek Renewables, which then sold it to Dominion Energy last summer.
Next Wednesday, the Richmond-based utility giant is holding a community meeting at the Wilderness Branch Library to update area residents on the Route 20 project now that construction, at last, has begun.
The Madison Solar project traces its roots to the fall of 2017, when SolUnesco, a Reston-based company—applied for a special use permit for a large-scale solar operation on agriculturally zoned land a mile south of Locust Grove Primary School. Solar farms, as a public utility facility, are permissible in any county zoning district but only with a special use permit.
Initial local concerns included: project ownership, management and accountability; the resale of energy generated locally; viewshed impacts, construction traffic, decommissioning; and benefits to the county.
Ultimately, the planning commission recommended approval of the project with a 4-0 vote (one commission member was absent).
The board of supervisors unanimously approved the project a month later, but attached a condition that required a vegetation buffer to “adequately obscure visibility of the facility from Route 20.”
At the time, SolUnesco representatives said the project should generate approximately $2.2 million for the county over the 30-year life of the project and generate enough energy to power the equivalent of 10,000 homes.
One year later, SolUnesco had sold the undeveloped project to Cypress Creek Renewables, a California-based company.
By August 2020, Dominion had purchased the project as part of a bid to expand its clean energy portfolio.
At the time, Dominion touted the purchase as part of its effort to build up its solar generating capacity to comply with the new law out of the General Assembly calling for 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045.
Dominion currently has 20 solar projects either completed or under construction in Virginia.
The purchase was part of an agreement with Falls Church-based Northrop Grumman Corp., a large defense technology contractor, which will purchase the facility’s renewable energy from the grid to power its operations.
“If we can help our customers—both large and small—add more renewables and provide cleaner electricity, that’s a win for our customers and the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Robert M. Blue, Dominion’s executive vice president and co-chief operating officer at the time of the purchase.
Since then, Dominion has been working to secure land disturbance, sediment and erosion control permits and begun construction work, according to Dominion External Affairs Manager, Sarah Marshall.
In August, nearby property owners were notified that construction on the project had begun.
It said, in part, “As a long-standing partner with Orange County, we want to make sure you are aware of the project and our plans to move forward… This project is important to meeting the Commonwealth’s and Dominion Energy’s customer-focused clean energy goals and it will have a positive effect on Orange County’s economy as we rely on locally-based suppliers and labor as much possible. Ultimately, the power produced will be used by Northrop Grumman to match 100% of its Virginia manufacturing and office operations’ electricity use. We look forward to working with Orange County and local neighbors as we move forward with this important project.”
Marshall said the project largely had remained dormant since approval in 2017. The community meeting next week is an effort to engage with local residents and “let them know the project is alive and well.”
She said since Dominion has owned the project, it hasn’t met with members of the community.
“This is an opportunity for the community to ask us about the project so they’ll know what to expect,” she said.
Construction on the project, which is expected to use approximately 350 acres of the more than 600-acre site, began this summer.
She said Dominion has contacted VDOT and Orange County Public Schools to mitigate construction traffic impacts.
The community meeting will be held Wednesday, Oct. 20, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Wilderness Branch Library on Route 601 near the intersection with Route 20.
For more information on the Madison Solar project, visit www.dominionenergy.com/projects-and-facilities/solar-energy-facilities-and-projects/virginia-solar-projects/madison-solar.