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Solar farm

Co. commissioner ‘skeptical’ as dirt work begins on 500 acres near Wawbeek

The ‘farm’ will encompass the area inside the red lines.

News Staff Writer

In Escambia County, farmers grow and market a wide variety of crops, including cotton, corn and soybeans. A Carolina company is adding a different sort of crop to the list, and at least one county commissioner isn’t exactly overjoyed about it.
Asheville, N.C.-based Pine Gate Renewables (PGR), which has since its founding in 2016 grown to become one of the nation’s most active developers and operators of solar and energy storage projects, plans to start this week preparing the ground for an 80 megawatt “solar farm” to be built on a 500-acre site near Wawbeek.
The project, known as East Atmore Solar, will generate electricity using photovoltaic (PV) solar panels that capture the sun’s energy and convert it to alternating current (AC) electric power. Once the solar energy has been inverted, it will be sent to a transformer and onto the existing Alabama Power Company (APCO) electricity grid, using APCO’s existing power lines.
Alabama Power has begun construction of a massive substation near the end of Sam Jones Road in preparation for the new source of energy.
The land on which the solar panels will be placed was farmed most recently by Brandon Dortch, who reportedly grew peanuts during the 2023 crop year and cotton the year before that. Before Dortch bought the acreage, it was reportedly tended for years by Miles Horn, who also practiced crop rotation.
District 4 County Commissioner Brandon Smith, in whose district the new power company will be located, said this week he’s having a hard time reconciling the anticipated positive economic impact of the solar farm with the long-term negative effect it could have on the county’s agricultural output.
“I don’t want anybody to think I’m negative about it, but I do have a little concern,” Smith said. “Escambia County is a farming community, so I do have a little heartburn with the federal government allowing these solar panel companies to come in like this. I’m not against solar panels; I’m not against solar energy, but they don’t make farmland every day, and this is literally taking food off the table.”
A fact sheet sent by the solar energy company to residents and businesses near the acreage — which straddles U.S. 31 and lies between Abrams and Sardis Church roads — says the facility, when completed and fully functional, will represent a $100 million-plus investment in the county and will annually provide enough electricity to light up 13,840 homes.
Smith said the estimated capital investment amount has risen since it was first announced more than two years ago by Hecate Energy, a Chicago-based company that eventually sold its local contract to PGR.
“I think the original proposal was $96-98 million,” he recalled. “When the new company bought it, they reassessed things and said they would not be able do it for that price, that it would be more like $125-129 million. That’s a lot of money.”
County commissioners granted a 10-year tax abatement to Hecate, which requires the company to pay only school taxes for each year of the agreement. The abatement has reportedly been transferred to PGR.
There will also be the creation — during the lengthy construction period — of an estimated 200 temporary jobs, providing immediate economic stimulation through increased business at restaurants, motels and hotels, as well as heavy equipment rental companies.
Once the project is completed, however, there will be only a minimal human presence.
“That’s 500 acres of farmland that’s not going to buy tractor tires, not going to buy farm equipment,” Smith said. “Solar panel fields won’t supply any jobs. After they get things up and running, they’ll have some of their people come by to spray and cut the grass once in a while. Other than that, it will be self-sustaining.”
For the commissioner, who said he has not received any negative feedback from residents and business owners in the area, his biggest concern is that more such projects will follow East Atmore Solar to Lower Alabama’s flatlands.
Such a move would allow the industry to take a large portion of the county’s arable land out of production, in effect making electricity the county’s biggest cash crop.
“My concern is, 20 years from now, are all our farming operations going to be covered over with solar panels?” he asked. “I don’t want Escambia County to be a dumping ground for solar panels. At some point, we’ve got to look at where we’re going to get our food from. That’s the thing that concerns me.”
Smith said he would keep his fingers crossed that the benefits of the solar farm will prove to outweigh the drawbacks.
“I’m really skeptical of the whole thing,” the District 4 representative said. “I’m sure there are a lot of good things that could come from it, but as a commissioner, how we live, what we survive on, that’s what I have to think about. When the well runs dry, that’s it.
“I hope it doesn’t come back to bite us; I really do. It’s good to have a good energy supply, but if you’re starving to death at the same time …”