In the wake of the Archer solar controversy, Alachua County commissioners vote to buffer future facilities

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The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners has voted to no longer exempt solar utility facilities from a 30% tree canopy coverage requirement and to mandate that they provide a buffer of 75 to 150 feet of coverage next to a residential area.

The commissioners met this week for a special meeting to discuss the county’s solar policies. The conversation quickly centered around the tree coverage and buffer of these facilities.

“If there was a 30% tree canopy, it could serve as a buffer from the community and industrial solar plants like they want,” Commissioner Anna Prizzia said.

Sean McClendon, the county’s strategic initiatives manager, offered a presentation in which he tied the matter to the Alachua County comprehensive plan. One of the plan’s targets is to have 100% of the energy used by the county to be from solar photovoltaic sources by 2030.

“This is a large goal,” said McLendon, noting that the county consumes a little over 19 kilowatts per year.

The plan has been challenging to meet following community comments on previous solar plant proposals. Currently, there is an energy cap at 50 megawatts. Once residential solar initiatives pass this cap, any additional energy produced cannot be stored.

“We are in the last of the solar to be installed in this community,” McLendon said.

Options to make solar energy functional on a massive scale in Alachua County include the use of batteries to store energy past cap of 50 megawatts and the introduction of utility-level solar plants.

In a statement in response to the Alachua County Climate Action Committee, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) General Manager Ed Bielarski said it would take 500-600 megawatts of solar capacity to fully supply GRU customers.

“With or without natural gas backup, the land required to house 500 to 600 megawatts of solar capacity would approximate 4,000 acres,” Bielarski wrote. “Four thousand acres is 6 and a quarter square miles.”

Each 50- to 75-megawatt solar farm would also require 400-700 acres of land. That doesn’t address, however, the land needed for battery storage or natural gas backup power plants.

It is unclear how the county plans to meet its goal of 100% solar-sourced energy for its facilities by 2030. Many residents commented both themselves and their communities could be affected.

Nathan Skop, a frequent GRU critic, urged the commissioners to tweak their motion before the vote. Skop said he believes a barrier of 1,000 feet of setback is needed for any facility that is 10 kilowatts or greater.

“Moving forward, this is an opportunity to lead by example,” Skop said.

He also disagreed with county officials who said humidity may mitigate the heat island effect caused by large-scale solar projects. “Humidity extenuates the effect by 3 to 5 degrees,” Skop said, adding that a 150-foot barrier would not offer sufficient mitigation.

Gerie Crawford, of Archer, and another member of the community council, said she believes that many such projects should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Crawford said the county should be having “conversations with communities so they don’t feel left out or left behind.”

Concerns of equity and justice are not new to the solar facility discussion in Alachua County. Several community members expressed their concerns of not being included in the plans or benefits of large solar facilities when plans on an Archer solar farm were pending earlier this year.

David Hastings of the Suwannee St. Johns Group Sierra Club also addressed concerns of community justice in the production of solar plants. Hastings said he looks forward to conversations with others that ensures equity, affordability and access.

In his presentation, McLendon addressed aspects of justice for communities in the siting of future facilities, saying that would mean “no one community is having to bear the cost of these larger installations.”

Most everyone who called in or commented in person to the discussion was clear that the community should be more involved in the discussion of solar plants.

The disconnect between the community and these conversations is a reason previous facilities were voted against after they previously held approval by the Alachua County Planning Commission.

Sarah Younger, of High Springs, said a proposed plant a mile from her house in High Springs would acerbate traffic and poor road conditions in her community.

“It is very important that people are given complete and accurate information,” Younger said.

The city and county’s Joint Water and Climate Policy Board will meet Oct. 25 at 9:30 a.m. in the Jack Durrance Auditorium. There will be presentations from Leon County, Duke Energy and other utilities on solar programs. The public is welcome to comment virtually or in person.

About Kierra Hill

Kierra is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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