PIERCE — Sunshine from Pierce County could turn the lights on and provide heat and cooling to thousands of homes in a few years.
On Monday, the Pierce County board of commissioners voted 3-0 to approve what’s known as the Goldenrod Solar Project following a public hearing. The project represents about a $400 million investment into Pierce County by NextEra Energy of Juno Beach, Florida.
William Wilkins, the company’s project director, said the project is expected to provide about $1.75 million in tax revenues every year for Pierce County for the life of the project.
About two-thirds of that will go to schools, along with all the other entities that receive property taxes, he said. The land is in both the Pierce and Battle Creek school districts.
Wilkins said it is expected to create about 500 to 600 construction jobs, with a few full-time jobs as well during the life of the project, which is estimated to be about 35 years.
He also provided the following timeline. This year and next year, environmental assessment, along with civil and engineering design, will take place. Construction permitting will take place in 2021 and 2022. The earliest it could become operational would be 2022, Wilkins said.
Several people spoke in favor and provided letters of support, noting the project would convert sunshine into electricity, providing a renewable energy source that doesn’t cause pollution or create much noise.
Susan Norris, Pierce County economic development director, said she and the board support the project.
Norris said there are few projects that could bring this kind of wealth to the county and have such a low environmental impact.
Heather McWhorter, the planning and zoning administrator for Pierce and Madison counties, said the solar farm is in an area where it will be difficult to be viewed.
“I think it is a location where if you want to see it, you’re going to have to drive out there. And then you probably won’t be able to see it until you get a half-mile within it,” she said.
Two people spoke against it.
Brian Bussey said he owns land to the south of the proposed project. He does not want to see the land changed, he said.
“It is one of the most isolated and inaccessible areas around,” Bussey said.
Bussey said several of his neighbors have told him they don’t want the land to be changed as well.
He suggested that instead of turning the ground into a solar farm, part of it could be converted into native grasslands and wildlife habitat.
Dennis Leach, another neighbor, said he likely would be living closer to it than anyone.
Leach said there will be construction taking place about 163 feet from his house when the solar farm is built. “I don’t think it needs to be that close to my house,” he said.
Leach said he also would have a close view of the solar farm after that from his house.
Ryan Zimmerman, one of the owners of the land, said Leach does have a tree line that will prevent viewing of the solar farm.
“In the summer,” Leach quickly added, noting that during much of spring, fall and winter, there are no leaves on the trees.
Zimmerman said there also is a spotted wetland next to the Leach home that will not be developed. That will provide additional area where there won’t be solar panels next to the house, he said.
NextEra officials said they would be willing to meet with the landowners to go over their concerns and try to eliminate them or minimize them. That could include such actions as planting evergreen trees to reduce visibility around the fences.
Bussey said he would like to eliminate the fence so that wildlife can go through the property.
For security and safety, company officials said fences around the solar panels would be needed. However, in other states, they have built the fences to accommodate turtles so they can crawl under them, like in Florida, or panthers so they can jump over them, like in California. They also can construct it in such a way to allow wildlife to pass through, they said.
The height of the fence and the way it is designed will be appropriate for wildlife in the area, company officials said.
Bruce Zimmerman, the father of Aaron and Ryan Zimmerman, said his grandfather purchased some of the farm land after he returned from World War I. And his sons took over farming about 2005, he said.
It does not make the best row crop land because of all the sand, he said, so this solar farm will be a benefit to the region. All the chemicals associated with farming it will be gone, he said.
The 2,500 acres where the solar farm is proposed consists of all the land the Zimmermans own. The land is along the Willow Creek watershed.
The brothers said they plan to pull the pivots and sell them, then seal the wells.
They also plan to establish native grasses and pollinator habitat, going back to the native prairie that it originally was.
Before construction begins, the roads to the site will be examined to see what routes will be best for hauling materials. Company officials said they would pay for any improvements or upgrades that might be needed.