The third step in a 20-step process was taken by Hecate Energy on Monday evening during a teleconference information meeting where the company outlined plans for construction of the New Market Solar Farms in southwestern Highland County.
Due to health concerns presented by COVID-19, the required applicant information meeting was held as a “virtual open house,” in the words of Jared Wren, development associate for the energy company.
“This is similar to what has been conducted previously in the community, as per the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) rules,” Wren said in an email response to The Times-Gazette. “The difference being we are limited in the way that we can conduct public meetings, so they have to be virtual for now.”
On March 19, 2019, Hecate staged a similar question-and-answer meeting before a packed house at Whiteoak High School, to gain public input on its proposed 300-megawatt Highland Solar Farm project that Wren said received OPSB certification last year.
“This 100-megawatt project, the New Market Solar Farm, bifurcated by 35-megawatts and 65-megawatts, respectively, is separate and apart from the Highland Solar Farm project,” Wren said. “They are separate projects, not an expansion or extension.”
As previously reported, the Hecate Highland Solar Farm project will occupy about 3,500 acres of land north of and between Mowrystown and Buford.
The company’s newest solar farm project, called New Market Solar I and II, is proposed to occupy a little more than 1,000 acres of land in Clay and Whiteoak townships.
New Market Solar I, at 582 acres, would extend from Gath Road northeast on New Market Road to just short of Landess Road before following Hollowtown Road to the southeast and then terminating on Edwards Road, between Gath and Fender roads.
The 222-acre footprint of New Market Solar II will be on the southern side of Edwards Road, extending westward from the Fender Road intersection to Stringtown Road.
Dr. Evan Blumer, project director of the Appalachian Ohio Solar Jobs Network, described Monday’s teleconference as the first of a multi-step approval process to get OPSB approval to actually build the facility, and that it’s required for anything over 50 megawatts.
“This is a totally separate facility from that big 300-megawatt Highland Solar Farm down in Mowrystown,” Blumer said. “The only connection that New Market Solar and Highland Solar have is it’s the same developer and they had access to more land, so this was done in separate permitting for a 100-megawatt facility.”
He said Hecate was at the point Monday where the company was much earlier in the Highland Solar Farm project, and that New Market Solar could possibly begin construction before Highland does.
“This new project is likely to have shovels in the ground sooner because it’s committed,” Blumer said. “The original Highland project, being a much bigger facility, was committed to AEP, but because they couldn’t do what they wanted due to rejection by the Public Utilities Commission, Hecate had to find a new buyer for that energy.”
On Jan. 10, Neil Waggoner of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Ohio, told The Times-Gazette that the PUCO rejected part of AEP Ohio’s plan to do “rate base” financing of construction on both the Highland and Willowbrook solar panel farms.
He said AEP’s business model was to press forward with construction and supply pollution-free electrical power to its customers, but the PUCO ordered that a charge could not appear on consumers’ statements to pay for building the facilities before they go online.
“The Public Utilities Commission denied AEP what is called ‘rate recovery’ for building those projects,” Waggoner said. “They basically told AEP that you can’t charge your customers to build them, and what that means moving forward is that the developers can still build Willowbrook and Hecate Highland if they line up financing.”
Blumer said because of that circumstance, even though everything was approved, the business deal had to be reworked while at the same time New Market Solar moved consistently forward.
“While they may be physically near each other, and with some land owners who have land in both, these are completely separate business deals,” Blumer said. “It’s like saying one developer built two buildings next to each other, one a warehouse and the other a strip mall.”
One of the concerns posed in Monday’s teleconference was removing farm land from crop production to electrical generation. Blumer said one advantage in his mind was that every other usage was permanent.
“It’s just another crop on that land as far as I’m concerned,” Blumer said. “Any other use of that land will be far more permanent of a change than this — farm land is important, and this will still be productive farm land in the long term if those land owners want to return to that.”
According to Hecate, the total commitment for New Market Solar I and II will be at least 35 years, at which point the lease can be renewed or the land returned to agricultural production.
Following Monday’s teleconference, the OPSB indicated that the next step for the energy company is the certificate application submission, at which point the agency has 60 days to conduct a compliance review.
After that, assuming there are no paperwork issues or problems at the site, the OPSB will approve a second public notice and public hearing in 60 to 90 days, then afterward an adjudicatory hearing would be held at the OPSB offices with a decision and permit certificate issued within 30 days, according to the OPSB application process flowchart.
The flowchart indicated that if the company met all the milestones and criteria, Hecate could meet its goal of beginning construction on New Market Solar I and II early next year, with completion and commercial operations beginning sometime in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Wren said the public can go the website www.newmarketsolar.com for further information, including a recorded presentation and a link to access all the documents posted to the OPSB docket to date.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.