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Camden lifts halt on solar

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By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Friday, May 19, 2017

CAMDEN — New solar farm construction in Camden County is again permissible after commissioners agreed this week to lift a 60-day moratorium.

At Monday's meeting the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a dozen amendments to the county's code of ordinances that affect solar farm construction. By approving the amendments, which were drafted and presented by Planning Director Dan Porter, the commissioners in turn lifted the moratorium.

The board approved the amendments after hearing from Porter, County Attorney John Morrison, members of the public and solar farm experts. Two of the amendments will require additional review and possible changes before being voted on again by the board at a later date.

Both amendments are related to solar farm decommissioning. The second of the two specifically addresses the cost of decommissioning solar facilities and ensuring ways the owner of the facility, not the county, incurs that cost. The amendment currently requires the facility's owner, prior to receiving a building permit, to provide a bond, cash escrow deposit or "letter of irrevocable credit" to the county. That amount would be equal to the estimated decommissioning cost and used by the county if the owner failed to decommission the site in accordance with county regulations.

Commissioners agreed there may be other methods the county could use to ensure the county doesn’t get stuck with solar farm decommissioning costs. They instructed Porter and his staff, and Morrison, to research possible methods and report back.

Commissioners lifted the moratorium, which they imposed in March, after hearing public comments from SunEnergy1 CEO Kenny Habul, who said he's not aware of any solar farm ever having been decommissioned.

"In my opinion, in 21 years of researching and traveling the world and building these systems and lecturing, I've never seen a system decommissioned," said Habul, whose company has built solar farms in nearby Pasquotank and Currituck counties and is building one in Camden. "I've never seen a system abandoned. I've never seen a system close to being decommissioned."

For example, Habul said, if a 5-megawatt facility is earning about $800,000 a year in revenue by selling electricity to Dominion Power it's unlikely the owner is going to decommission it.

"Show me someone that is going to abandon an asset that makes $800,000 a year through electricity sales," Habul said. "It's never going to happen."

Porter, when questioned by Morrison, also said that in his recent research he had not come across a solar farm that had been decommissioned.

Board Chairman Clayton Riggs suggested the county may be trying to enforce an ordinance that's not even necessary.

"I think we're making a law we don't need," he said.

Porter presented a total of 13 recommended amendments to commissioners at Monday’s meeting. Commissioners approved all but one — an amendment prohibiting solar farm construction in the county's core village areas. As a result, applicants can seek a permit to build a solar farm within the county's three core villages of South Mills, Shiloh and Courthouse. One minor change the board made to an amendment reduces the maximum height of solar farm power generation structures from 20 to 15 feet.

In March, the commissioners imposed the 60-day moratorium on the construction of new solar farms. County officials used the time to study the county’s current ordinances and to make amendments they felt were warranted. The moratorium followed the board's approval in January of a 5-megawatt solar farm SunEnergy1 is building in the Shiloh area.

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