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Hinds County approves Raymond solar farm


Outside of the Hinds County Chancery Court building Monday morning, Raymond residents opposing a solar farm development walked up and down the sidewalk with signs saying “Say No To Big Solar.” Inside the building, the Board of Supervisors voted to approve the project.

A few dozen of the residents against the solar farm made it inside the board’s meeting room, most of them wearing green shirts that said “Not in my backyard #NIMBY.” Many of the same faces at Monday’s meeting were also at the Hinds County Planning Commission meeting last month, where the commission voted not to recommend the project, titled “Soul City Solar,” to the Board of Supervisors.

The vote was 3 to 2 in favor of Soul City. Supervisors Robert Graham, Tony Smith and Wanda Evers, whose district is where the project will be, voted for the proposal, while Supervisors Deborah Butler-Dixon and Bobby “Bobcat” McGowan voted against.

The company in charge of the project, Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy, said it plans to begin construction next year and have its panels operating by 2027. Since 2021, the company has worked with private landowners between Raymond and Bolton to enter into lease agreements to house the solar panels, which will take up just under 6,000 acres. The company says Soul City will produce 396 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 95,000 homes. That power production would make Soul City the largest solar development in Mississippi.

Apex also says the project will create about $150 million in county tax revenue over the initial 30-year lifespan of the facility, in addition to 10 full-time jobs and 400 construction jobs. Last November, the Hinds County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of an ad valorem tax agreement for the project. Brian O’Shea, director of Public Engagement for Apex, said the agreement saves the company money in the long-term, but didn’t have an exact percent. (Hinds County officials weren’t available Monday to provide the terms of the agreement).

Paulette Robinson voiced disapproval of the building of a solar farm near her residence during a meeting of the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, Monday, June 17, 2024, in Jackson. The supervisors voted 3 -2 in approval of the solar farm. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Paulette Robinson, who said her home is adjacent to where the new panels will be, told the Board of Supervisors at Monday’s meeting that she and other neighbors of the project area only found out about the proposal last month when Apex held a local public meeting.

“I understand the need for those (tax) dollars in Hinds County,” Robinson said. “I also understand that solar is the energy of the future. But not at the expense of the residents that make up the county.”

Robinson and others, including Raymond Mayor Isla Tullos, asked the board to delay the approval to provide time to establish clearer rules and guidelines for solar developers to follow.

“Your no vote would be for the purpose of setting a one-year moratorium (on the project),” Tullos said. “During this one-year period, you will be leading our state in developing best practice guidance for solar development.”

At both Monday’s meeting and the Planning Commission meeting last month, a vast majority of Raymond residents attending were against the solar farm. Opponents to the project said there was a petition going around with over 1,100 signatures (an online version of the petition has close to 800 signatures).

Raymond Mayor Isla Tullos (left) joined others at the Hinds County Board of Supervisors meeting held at the Chancery Courthouse to voice their dissent in the building of a solar farm in their communities, Monday, June 17, 2024 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

And their concerns are far from just about the short notice they received about the proposal: A number of Raymond residents have talked about the potential for toxic chemicals to leach from the solar panels, as well as fears about increased heat near the facility and impacts to the local wildlife.

But experts, including those from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, have largely denounced theories that solar panels have any harmful impacts to humans.

“Photovoltaic (PV) technologies and solar inverters are not known to pose any significant health dangers to their neighbors,” the North Carolina center wrote in a 2017 paper. “The most important dangers posed are increased highway traffic during the relative short construction period and dangers posed to trespassers of contact with high voltage equipment.”

While research from 2016 supports the belief that solar panels increase nearby temperatures, an article about the study says the effect can’t be measured 100 feet from the power source. O’Shea, from Apex, said Soul City will be at least 300 feet from any neighboring occupied property.

At last month’s Planning Commission meeting, Apex representatives said Soul City would include a “nature corridor” to allow wildlife to move freely through the project area. Local opponents remained skeptical though, arguing that installments could disrupt habitats for nearby species like deer, black bears and birds.

The Hinds County Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 in approving a solar farm owned by Apex Clean Energy, before a packed boardroom, Monday, June 17, 2024 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Another study from 2016 estimated that utility-scale solar farms kill tens of thousands of birds per year nationwide. The Audubon Society, though, says that photovoltaic panels, the ones Soul City would include, do not pose such a risk, and that the long-term benefits of using renewable energy outweigh any concerns for birds.

Smith, who represents District 2, said his research didn’t back up the concerns that opponents were relaying, and that the he supported something that was going to lower energy costs.

“I pay a lot of money for energy, and if this is something that can lower the cost of energy, I’m okay with it,” he said.

Apex said it plans to sell the energy it produces through the MISO power grid, which manages energy transmission through a regional marketplace.

Brent Bailey, the former Central District Public Service commissioner, spoke in favor of the project on Monday, saying it would increase access to clean and cost-effective energy, as well as add local revenue for infrastructure in schools.

Hinds County residents not in favor the building of a solar farm in their area packed the meeting of the Hinds County Baord of Supervisors, Monday, June 17, 2024 in Jackson. Supervisors voted 3 – 2 in favor of the solor farm. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“Nearly 40 large utility-scale solar farms have been approved for construction and operation in Mississippi,” Bailey said to the board, before making a quip about the opposing attendees’ green shirts. “These communities did not say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ they said, ‘Yes, in my backyard.’”

After the meeting, one of those in the green shirts walked up to Bailey, pointing a finger and said, “You don’t live here. I do.”

McGowan, District 5 supervisor who was one of the two votes against the project, said the decision should come down to whether or not those in Raymond want it.

“Why do we want to put something in somebody’s area that they don’t want to be in the area?” he asked. “I don’t get that.”

Allison Lauderdale, a Raymond resident and organizer of the opposition to Soul City, recently set up a GoFundMe to raise money for legal funds to fight the project in case it was approved. Lauderdale told Mississippi Today after the vote that she plans to file an injunction and has 10 days to do so.

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