4,700-Acre Solar Farm Next To Oaky Woods WMA In Study Phase
If approved, this could be the largest solar farm in the state.
When the state purchased 10,015 acres of Oaky Woods WMA back in 2010 for $28.5 million taxpayer dollars, a big victory had been achieved for middle Georgia sportsmen and wildlife—including the central Georgia bear population. However, a crisis is lurking over the horizon as the same landowners, Southern Timber Consultants LLC in Perry, who sold the property to the state in 2010, has joined forces with Silicon Ranch Corporation in Nashville, Tenn. and are now in a “study phase” that could result in a 4,700-acre solar project on the southern border of the WMA.
“Large-scale solar arrays can have significant negative impacts if sited in locations that provide important wildlife habitat. We have already seen these sorts of impacts with gopher tortoises and black bears,” said Matt Elliot, chief of DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section. “Working with the solar industry to either minimize or offset these impacts will be critical going forward as we continue to increase our solar capacity in Georgia.”
The solar project, which is currently in a study phase that could take months, would need approval by the Houston County Board of Zoning Appeals and the Houston County Commissioners. If approved, it would border Oaky Woods WMA for 1 1/2 miles and create the largest solar farm in Georgia, if it’s built out to full capacity.
“Overall, balancing the growth of Georgia and impacts to wildlife along with the reduction of available recreational land for activities such as hunting is certainly challenging,” said Ted Will, Director of WRD. “It points to the value of the important land acquisition and conservation efforts that we have taken and the need to continue to look for additional opportunities in the future.”
Solar farms seem to be a reality for Georgians, which is why DNR has made efforts to get in front of the obvious wildlife issues these farms create.
“Given their growth, DNR began working with the solar industry to provide guidance on selecting and managing these sites as a way to minimize impacts to critical wildlife species and habitats in our state,” said Will.
A 2,000-acre solar project was recently built in Twiggs County across the Ocmulgee River from Oaky Woods. In Houston County on more than 700 acres, a solar farm was built several years ago. Both those solar farms are built on what was good bear habitat that is now gone. The new proposed solar project would add to the loss of habitat for the small central Georgia bear population.
The Silicon Ranch Corporation in Nashville, Tenn. is the lead backer of the project, along with Southern Timber Consultants LLC in Perry. Recently, the Silicon Ranch Corporation was sued in Lumpkin County for extensive water runoff damage to adjoining property at another of their solar projects.
Georgia Wildlife Federation President and CEO Mike Worley said that for any proposed solar project in Georgia, a great starting point is the document “Recommended Practices for the Responsible Siting and Design of Solar Development in Georgia.”
“This was drafted up by several highly respected conservation organizations, including the Georgia DNR, the Georgia Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy and the Georgia EPD,” said Worley. “This is a voluntary guide for solar developers but will aid all parties involved to provide electricity for Georgians and protect wildlife and our environment. No energy source is without its challenges and solar is no exception. The vast spacial scale of these projects makes for unique challenges for wildlife. These Recommended Practices will help the industry as it address those challenges. As always, we will work to learn and adapt to both those challenges and successes. Without question we need to develop these utility scale solar installations, but also without question we need to develop them in smart ways.”
I recently spoke with Rep. Robert Dickey about the project. Dickey is currently serving his sixth term in the Georgia House of Representatives for District 140, which covers Crawford County and parts of Bibb, Houston, Monroe and Peach counties. He would like to see discussions begin that would lead to a policy that would create acreage minimums of solar farms to no more than 400 acres.
This writer suggests legislators take a look at creating a solar farm mitigation fund, where funds are put into a conservation fund to purchase land offset by the environmental damage done.
To make comments on the solar farm project, contact Houston County at [email protected] or call them at 478.542.2115.
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