If approved by the McDuffie County Board of Commissioners, EDF Renewables North America will convert more than 2,900 acres of local timber and hunting land into a $320 million, 325 mega-watt capacity solar farm named Rock House Solar.
Following a presentation by EDF representatives during their Jan. 3 meeting, the Thomson-McDuffie Planning Commission recommended approval of a variance to exceed the 25-acre solar farm limit. Other than that exemption, the project is proposed to meet all other local requirements, including 20-foot setbacks, an eight-foot perimeter safety fence, and a double row of trees.
If the project moves forward, EDF will purchase five parcels totaling 2,914 acres of agricultural land along Randall Hunt Road between Hampton Davis and Larkin roads. The properties are currently used for timber operations.
According to Project Developer Telemachos "Telly" Manos, 1,800 acres of the property would be covered with solar panels and related facilities, with the rest remaining open space due to wetlands and other concerns.
Current plans are for construction during 2024 and 2025 with commercial operation of the solar farm beginning in 2025 or 2026.
The location, Manos said, is optimal for solar development due to the group of properties being contiguous, as well as the land's proximity to a Georgia Power substation. Should Georgia Power not purchase the generated power, however, the project developer said there are plenty of private buyers who will.
"The nearby Thomson Primary substation is optimally located along several high-capacity transmission lines, making this location perfect for boosting capacity on the grid," Manos said in a written statement following the presentation. According to the formal presentation, a 325-megawatt facility produces enough electricity to power about 41,000 homes.
Manos said the proposed use of the land fits well with the current use.
"The majority of the land optioned for this project is currently cultivated by the timber industry. Most of the acreage has been recently harvested or is soon to be harvested," he said. "We intended this project to align nicely with the scheduled use of the land, both maximizing the economic value of the acreage and minimizing our environmental footprint."
The project developer said EDF plans to install 70-80 rows of 7-foot by 5-foot solar panels, which will rotate on an axis to continually face the sun. The panels will not be visible from the roads surrounding the property.
"The maximum height of each panel at full tilt is roughly 10 feet — about the height of a stalk of corn — so the existing evergreen pine trees in McDuffie County will provide an excellent visual buffer from the roads and neighboring community," he said. Vegetation will be added so that the panels are only visible from the sky, and the land will be revegetated to stabilize it, Manos said.
Both during the meeting and in written comments, Manos touted what he said are benefits of the development for the local community.
During construction, the project is expected to generate more than 250 jobs and up to four permanent positions at the site.
The solar farm, he said, will generate between 13 and 20 times the tax revenue the county receives from the current use of the land for the 40-year life of the solar farm project. That, he told the planning commissioners, will total between $650,000 and $850,000 to the county for each of the 40 years. Two-thirds of the expected tax revenue would go to local schools. During construction, EDF is expected to pay $3.8-$4 million in sales tax.
"This project will provide a significant source of tax revenue to McDuffie County. We anticipate about $25-$30 million in direct payments over the life of the project in both property and sales tax, the majority of which would go to local schools," he said. "It will result in increased spending locally since many of the services needed to maintain the facility will be contracted from the community. Examples include mowing, routine cleaning, earthwork, repairs, and hospitality services."
Manos said that at the end of the 40-year life of the project, EDF would either renew the existing use or return it to agricultural use. If the project is approved, EDF will post a bond to cover the cost of decommissioning the property should EDF not wish to upgrade it at its end of life.
"When it is decommissioned after 40 years, we could reclaim or repower it with updated panels," he said. "If there is no demand, we would decommission the facility, restoring it to its original condition."
Members of the planning commission asked about EDF Renewables' other projects, the potential for hail damage, and family graveyards that exist on the property.
Manos said there are two cemeteries that EDF is aware of and they protect those from development and will ensure the families have unrestricted access to them.
When the board voted unanimously to recommend approval of the requested variance to the McDuffie County Board of Commissioners, they suggested that commissioners place a condition on approval that would require that project construction begin by a certain date.
The McDuffie County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to review the variance request at its Jan. 17 meeting.