County to consider solar array near Paynes Prairie at Tuesday meeting

Published: Monday, June 10, 2013 at 8:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 10, 2013 at 8:22 p.m.

A solar array planned for a neighborhood near Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park will come before the Alachua County Commission Tuesday evening, where commissioners will likely hear from several residents who oppose the project.

The board will consider public input during the meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. at the County Administration Building at 12 SE First St. in downtown Gainesville. Commissioners will mull over two opposing recommendations: its staff’s recommendation for project approval and the Alachua County Planning Commission’s suggestion for its denial.

The Planning Commission voted in May to reject the solar project after hearing from neighborhood residents, some of whom said they worried it would be a commercial encroachment on a residential area valued for its natural beauty. A few Planning Commission members said they were concerned the location within the Idylwild/Serenola Special Area Study wasn’t appropriate.

Sybac Solar would set up the solar park on a property of about nine acres near the northern rim of Paynes Prairie. The company would sell the renewable energy the project generates to Gainesville Regional Utilities as part of GRU’s Solar Feed-in Tariff Program.

The program establishes 20-year, fixed-price contracts between GRU and various entities for solar projects. Sybac Solar needs to complete construction by Dec. 31, although an extension would be possible if construction was underway but suffered delays, said Rachel Meek of GRU, who is the program coordinator.

The company must build the solar park at the planned location and meet program deadlines to remain eligible, Meek said. It doesn’t have a contract with GRU yet.

The solar project doesn’t raise any environmental concerns, said Chris Bird, director of the county’s Environmental Protection Department. It is also compatible with county code, which is why the staff recommends approval.

The staff needs a legal basis on which to make recommendations, Bird said. If a project isn’t prohibited by county code, it is difficult to recommend denial.

Bird said his department is concerned, however, by what his staff refers to as solar sprawl.

His department believes there should be a policy encouraging rooftop solar arrays instead of ground-mounted projects like Sybac Solar’s, which he called a “greenfield development.”

“We’ve got probably millions of square feet of empty rooftops that could be used up before you start putting them on the ground,” he said.

If the County Commission approves the project and Sybac Solar makes its feed-in tariff program deadlines, it will secure a 20-year contract and receive a fixed rate of 15 cents per kilowatt hour from GRU for the energy its solar park produces, Meek of GRU said.

Rates vary by year and depend on the size and type of installation, she said. Smaller systems garner a higher rate because they are more expensive to install than larger systems like Sybac Solar’s project, and rooftop systems receive a higher rate than ground-mounted systems for the same reason.

“It’s not that it’s an incentive,” she said of the rate difference between rooftop and ground-mounted solar arrays.

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said Sybac Solar plans to donate the nine-acre property to Friends of Paynes Prairie for conservation. The organization would then lease the land to the company for the duration of its 20-year contract with GRU.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or

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