Land near Donoe Bypass to become $20M solar facility


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ST. THOMAS - The enormous swath of land cleared along the Donoe Bypass will soon be home to about 17,000 solar panels.

The $20 million solar facility will sell the energy it makes from the sun to the V.I. Water and Power Authority, lowering the consumers' bills by about 3 percent, according to WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr.

The project is expected to be complete by the end of the year and Virgin Islanders will begin to see reduced bills in January, according to Hodge.

In June 2012, WAPA signed a power purchase agreement with three solar companies to build several facilities territorywide. One of the contracts that was originally with Lanco Virgin Islands, a subsidiary of Lanco Solar International, was reassigned to Main Street Power Inc., a power purchase agreement provider based in Boulder, Colo.

The transfer of the contract was finalized about one year ago.

Main Street Power, with the financial assistance of Morgan Stanley, will fund, develop and maintain the solar power plant for the next 25 years, according to the agreement with WAPA.

Solar power is a renewable resource, but it does take space.

Hodge said it takes about 4 to 5 acres to generate 1 megawatt of power.

The Donoe solar project sits on about 32 acres and will generate 4.2 megawatts of alternating current, which will be fed into the WAPA grid. The solar facility will provide as much as 4 percent to 5 percent of the daytime base load for St. Thomas, according to WAPA.

When the ground was first cleared at the Donoe site, some locals were shocked at just how much land was stripped of all vegetation and some people had concerns about runoff and erosion control.

Main Street Power Project Manager Andrew Brentan told The Daily News that all permits are in place and they are very concerned about stormwater mitigation and erosion control. It is a steep site, and the company does not own the adjacent property that could be subjected to runoff, Brentan said.

The V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources has already come out to inspect the site twice after heavy rains to ensure that appropriate runoff protections were put in place, he said.

"Everything's going accordingly," he said.

He said the land was historically used for agriculture and the surveys done for the permitting process found no protected plants, animals or resources on the property.

Brentan said they are about 95 percent done clearing the property and cutting access roads. He said they needed to clear it completely, down to the dirt, in order to accurately see the topography.

"It's just much easier to cut everything down and see what you're working with," he said.

While the site must be free from any shade in order to maximize the solar panels' power production, they do plan to plant vegetation to hold the soil in place and be more aesthetically pleasing.

"It's not just going to look like this barren wasteland like it does now," he said.

He said they are already beginning to seed the property in certain areas with a mix of seeds that do well in the territory.

"We talked to a bunch of local contractors about what works," he said.

They will not be planting trees, however.

"Trees are going to be left off the property, mostly due to shading concerns," Brentan said.

Each solar panel is a 300 watt module, and about 17,000 of them will be installed at a "fixed tilt," he said.

The panels are on order from a manufacturer in China and should arrive in the territory in July, according to Brentan.

He said the panels are "robust" and will withstand sustained hurricane force winds.

"We're not too worried about panels flying around, but more about debris flying into the modules," he said.

About 40 to 50 local jobs will be created during the construction process, according to Main Street Power. The company has not yet decided who it will contract or hire to maintain the facility once it is operational, according to Brentan.

"The plan is to be mostly mechanically complete at the end of November or December, then we need to synch up with WAPA with the interconnection," he said. "We're hoping to be fully done with that and feeding into the grid in January."

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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