County eyes regulations for solar farms

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

The Jefferson County Planning Commission has begun working on a solar ordinance, the framework of which Planning Official Shannon Metty presented to the group at a recent workshop.
Prompting consideration of the ordinance are the several inquiries that Metty has been receiving relative to the installation of solar farms in the county. Two of the requests, she told the planners, were for farms of 600 or more acres each – one near Aucilla Highway and the other near Waukeenah Highway.
Metty didn't speculate about the inquiries, but it's interesting to contemplate why the county may suddenly hold attraction for solar facilities. It may be purely coincidental, of course. But it's also possible that NextEra's proposed high-voltage transmission line may be drawing the interest.
NextEra, which bills itself as one of the largest electric power and energy infrastructure companies in North America, is also a leader in the renewable energy industry. According to the company's 2018 annual report, NextEra Energy Resources (NEER) is listed as one of NextEra's principal businesses. The other is Florida Power and Light. (Mind, the annual report predates NextEra's acquisition of Gulf Power, which occurred in January 2019.)
And NEER, according to the report, “is the world's largest generator of renewable energy from wind and sun.” Whose strategic focus, the report goes on to state “is centered on the development, construction and operation of long-term contracted assets throughout the United States and Canada, including renewable generation facilities, natural gas pipelines and battery storage projects.”
But back to the workshop, at which Metty presented a draft solar ordinance as a starting point for the planners to fashion some form of regulation for the eventuality of mega solar systems locating in the county.
As Planning Attorney Scott Shirley explained it to the planners, the county currently has no regulations for solar power generating facilities, meaning that these can locate almost anywhere. He further noted that although ordinances could be fashioned quite complicated, it was his experience that the planners preferred regulations that were brief and lean. Hence, he said, the regulations that Metty had drafted were succinct and to the point.
The proposed regulations, which consisted of two pages, essentially defined solar photovoltaic collector systems, distinguished between small and large systems, and set minimum requirements for each.
The ordinance defined a solar radiation collector system as one that generated electricity for use in the home, accessory structure, equipment or that tied into an electric grid.
It defined a small-scale solar collection system as one that had a maximum power output of 30 kW or less and was used primarily to offset on-site consumption of utility power. Any roof-mounted system, according to the proposed ordinance, would be considered a small-scale solar collector system, “regardless of power output.”
The ordinance defined a large-scale solar collection as any system other than a small-scale solar collection system.
Small-scale systems, per the ordinance, would be allowed in all zoning districts, would be permitted through the building department, and would require setbacks only if they were ground-mounted units.
Large-scale systems, on the other hand, would be permitted only in Ag-20, Ag-5 and industrial districts as special exceptions and would require approval by the planning and county commissions.
Large-scale systems would also be subject to other requirements, including setbacks, buffering and property management and decommissioning plans.
The planners batted the proposed ordinance back and forth for a while but came to no conclusion. They appeared, however, to favor as a whole the establishment of buffers and setbacks for the larger facilities and that their security lightning did not create a night glow or create a glare for any surrounding property owners.
As usual in such discussions, the planners brought varying points of view and areas of expertise to bear on the topic, with the tension between property rights and the public good ever at the forefronts of the considerations.
Expressing one point of view was Byron Arceneaux, who argued that buffers and setbacks were critical to help preserve the county's rural character and integrity.
“We've got fairly inexpensive land and lots of it,” Arceneaux said. “If we don't set standards, we'll be overrun.”
Expressing a more laissez faire point of view were Jay Adams, Thomas Chancy and John Walker.
“They're (solar farms) the perfect neighbor,” Adams said. “They don't drink, party or have people over.”
Chancy concurred.
“My motto is, if it don't hurt the neighbors, let him (property owner) do whatever,” he said. “He pays the taxes.”
“It's the same as farming or raising cows,” offered Walker. “You're just raising electricity.”
Others, however, argued that the large-scale facilities were commercial enterprises and as such should be regulated for the sake of the county and neighboring property owners.
“I think we need to address decommissioning,” said Michael Schier. “If the county folds, who removes the equipment?”
In the end, the planners instructed Metty to present more options in terms of the buffering and setback requirements and lighting for future consideration.
The planners' next meeting is set for Thursday, Dec. 12, in the courthouse annex.