Update: The Washington County, Tennessee Commission denied a resolution on Monday to rezone 200 acres in Gray where a solar power company, Silicon Ranch, wants to build a 12 megawatt (MW) solar farm. The proposal required a rezoning from A-1 (general agriculture) to A-3 (agriculture-business).

Following comments by several neighbors of the farm currently owned by the Hall family — all in opposition to the proposal — only four of the 11 commissioners present voted yes, with seven voting against the rezoning. The Washington County Regional Planning Commission had voted 5-1-1 in favor of the proposal earlier this month.

Unless the company makes another attempt to gain passage, Monday’s vote effectively blocked Silicon Ranch from developing a solar farm on that property to sell energy to BrightRidge. It would have been the third in the county.

18-year-old Parker Black, a Washington County resident who lives near the proposed site, spoke on behalf of those in his neighborhood who were concerned about the solar farm. He spoke of both health concerns and opposition to the impact the farm might have on views and property values. Silicon Ranch has said it would buffer the panel arrays with trees.

“I’d like to come before you guys today, and let you know that my neighbors and I are all worried about this,” said Black. “And we do not want this to happen.”

Black brought up concerns about electromagnetic radiation. He said Silicon Ranch assured him that would not be an issue, but his concerns were not eased. The World Health Organization has concluded there is no evidence exposure to the “extremely weak electromagnetic fields” created by solar power operations are harmful to human health. Another resident expressed concerns about the materials in the photovoltaic panels, which include some toxic metals that he said could enter groundwater if they break and aren’t properly cleaned up.

“Allow me to ask you whether you would want your kids and grandkids to be test dummies in experiments with radiation like this,” Black said.

Representatives with Silicon Ranch were present at the meeting on behalf of the solar farm.

“We are excited to help BrightRidge power Washington County with renewable energy,” Silicon Ranch representative Kaia Harbor said. “And hopefully be good neighbors in the long term.”

The 12 MW farm would produce enough electricity to power 1,600 homes. Silicon Ranch operates two other solar farms in the county, which produce a total of 20 MW of electricity.

Commissioner Richard Tucker, who voted against the proposal, said he lives near a 9 MW Silicon Ranch facility at the Martin Farm.

“The people that lives right there and has to look across the street and see these, I mean they’re not attractive whatsoever,” Tucker said.

Harbor said with twice the land and only 33% more solar arrays than the Martin Farm, the new site would be less noticeable.

“We’re hoping to maintain a significant amount of that wooded area beneath for multiple reasons,” she said. “It’s better for us to keep that buffer for the community and for other reasons and also just because it’s easy for us not to have to clear that area.”

Harbor also said the company would plant an additional buffer to comply with the county’s zoning codes if the existing vegetation isn’t sufficient to meet the requirements.

Commissioner Ken Huffine, who also serves on the BrightRidge board, said the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) now allows local distributors to purchase up to 5% of their power from non-TVA sources. He said having local non-TVA power gives some “cushion” to citizens in the event of TVA power restrictions such as occurred last winter.

He said TVA is considering increasing the allowable amount of purchase of outside power to 10%.

Jodi Jones, who with Huffine, Jim Wheeler and Larry England voted in favor of the proposal, said she supports the concept of increasing the county’s local sources of power as the population grows and strain on the electrical grid increases. She also said the matter before the commission really shouldn’t have to do with their opinions, but more about whether the proposal met zoning requirements.

“That’s all we’re really considering is whether this particular piece of property is appropriate for an A-3 zone, and so any other uses for A-3 could go there eventually, and is that ok,” she said.

Mayor Joe Grandy said while land use and aesthetics are considerations, so is economics. He said TVA is now requiring large users (over 5 MW) to agree to let TVA power them down when necessary on five minutes’ notice.

“When you’re talking about the economics, if you’re talking about a company that’s going to bring in 150 jobs then that is an economic component — power generation, TVA,” Grandy said.

Asked by Commissioner David Tomita whether any other sites that are already A-3 could support the proposal, County Zoning Officer Angie Charles said there were not.

Voting against the rezoning were Ben Carder, Marty Johnson, Jerome Fitzgerald, Suzie Williams, David Tomita, Richard Tucker and Lewis Wexler.

PREVIOUS: GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) — An energy company with two operating solar farms in Washington County, Tennessee hopes to invest about $15 million to build a third in a rural part of Gray, and has entered a contract to sell the power from it to BrightRidge.

Silicon Ranch Director of Corporate Communications Rob Hamilton said if all proceeds smoothly, the company will begin construction by the second quarter of 2025 and “flip the switch” by the end of that year.

Silicon Ranch has requested the rezoning of 200 acres of farmland owned by the Hall family to A-3 (agriculture-business) from A-1 (general agriculture). The Washington County Regional Planning Commission approved the request on Sept. 5, and county commissioners will consider the request Monday.

Silicon Ranch has a 30-year agreement with BrightRidge to sell power from the proposed farm, which would produce 12 megawatts (MW) of electricity, similar to agreements related to two existing farms. The 11MW Martin Solar Farm in Jonesborough began operation in January 2022, while a now-9MW farm in Telford opened in 2019, producing 5MW at the time.

Hamilton said the company will buy the property if the permit process is successful.

“We typically own every project for the lifetime of the project,” he said. “That’s the case with this one as well, and as a result, we understand our responsibilities long-term.”

That includes decommissioning facilities at the end of the contract period — unless they continue to host solar production — and leaving the land in as good or better condition than when they bought it.

The company grazes sheep at its local solar farm in Telford to reduce the use of gas-powered mowers and improve the soil over time.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) allows local power distributors such as BrightRidge to purchase up to 5% of their power from local generating sources such as solar, wind and natural gas suppliers other than TVA through the agency’s “generation flexibility” program. Launched in 2019, it opened the door for arrangements like those Silicon Ranch has put in place with BrightRidge and others.

Hamilton said Silicon Ranch’s local operations benefit BrightRidge, its customers and the local economy.

“As a new local taxpayer, we’ll pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes in addition to the jobs we will create, where we focus on hiring locally from the veteran community,” he said.

Silicon Ranch paid $647,689 in 2021 for the 104 acres that contain the Martin Farm project. The property is valued at $529,200 but taxed at a “land use value” of $198,300, leaving annual taxes on the property at just over $1,000. The majority of taxes are paid on the “personal property” (equipment).

The company paid $152,489 for the Miller Farm’s 73 acres, where it built its first local solar farm. That land is taxed at less of a reduction than the Martin Farm.