RAYMOND — For the hundred or so Raymond residents who came to Tuesday’s Hinds County Planning Commission meeting about a proposed solar array, being able to see or hear what was going on was a luxury. The dozens of those who couldn’t fit into the packed, stuffy library room resigned to either peaking their heads in from the hallway or waiting outside in the 90 degree heat.

The focus of the meeting centered around a small group of representatives from the Virginia-based company Apex Clean Energy. The group, sweating in their collared shirts, stood before the Planning Commission to pitch what they argued was a huge economic opportunity for Hinds County: new jobs, tax revenue, and the chance to attract other businesses wanting to use solar energy.

After hearing everyone’s remarks, the Planning Commission ultimately voted against recommending the projects. But the final say rests with the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, who will make its decision at a June 17 meeting in Jackson.

Apex staff said at the meeting they started acquiring leases for the project, officially called “Soul City Solar,” in 2021, but residents said they first found about it during an informational session the company held on May 14.

Members of the Hinds County Planning Commission attempt to calm a room filled with upset Raymond residents as concerns about the Soul City Solar Project are acknowledged during a meeting at the Raymond Library on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Most of those residents who came on Tuesday were displeased with the idea. They argued that Raymond — a town of just under 2,000 people — is a venue for nature and open spaces, and, while they understood the allure of new income for the area, filling thousands of acres of land with metal panels sticking out of the ground doesn’t fit in with the town’s image.

“Whereas you would drive down the road and it would just be beautiful countryside, now you’re going to see an 8- to 10-foot cyclone fence,” said Allison Lauderdale, a Raymond resident who’s organized local opposition to the project, told Mississippi Today last week. “I think that’s going to be atrocious.”

Lauderdale started an online petition, which has close to 500 signatures, opposing Soul City Solar.

Tuesday’s meeting was contentious from the jump, as the Planning Commission seemed unprepared for the large turnout.

Members of Apex Clean Energy, a company that specializes in creating renewable energy projects, speak to members of the Hinds County Planning Commission on May 24, 2024, discussing the development of the Soul City Solar project, which could generate approximately 400 megawatts of clean electricity that could sufficiently power 95,000 homes in Mississippi. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

“Can y’all hear back there?” asked Delmer Stamps, one of the commissioners, explaining that they didn’t have microphones.

“No,” the crowd answered.

“We’re going to have to turn this air conditioner off,” another commissioner said.

“No! Talk louder!” the audience shouted back.

The Apex team then gave its pitch. The installation would use just under 6,000 acres, they explained, leasing property, including farmland, from seven private landowners the company has agreements with. Apex promised to maintain a perimeter of trees around the property so as to hide the panels from their neighbors’ view.

The project would produce 396 megawatts of electricity — in addition to battery storage of up to 70 megawatts — or enough to power 95,000 homes. Soul City Solar would be about twice as big as any solar farm that’s being constructed or currently running in Mississippi. Origis Energy is building a 200 MW plant in Lowndes County, and the largest operating plant is a 175 MW facility that EDP Renewables has in Scott County, former Public Service Commissioner Brent Bailey told Mississippi Today.

While Apex doesn’t have a utility to buy power directly from Soul City Solar, it’s plan is to sell power through the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, a nonprofit that serves as a marketplace for regional power grids.

Raymond residents listen as representatives from Apex Clean Energy answer questions about the Soul City Solar project during a Hinds County Planning Commission meeting at the Raymond Library on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Apex’s plan, should Hinds County approve the project, is to begin construction next year and have the panels operating by 2027. The company says its investment would bring in $156 million of local tax revenue over the 30 years that Apex is pledging to keep the facility. It would also create 400 construction jobs, along with 10 full-time operational positions.

Resident’s expressed a wide range of concerns, such as whether there would be harmful storm water runoff at the plant or issues recycling the metal panels. While the Environmental Protection Agency has penalized solar companies in the past over runoff violations during construction, Apex’s Tiffany Seavers said the company has plans to prevent such pollution in accordance with state and EPA regulations.

“Some of that will be extended buffers, some of that will be making sure that we have planting down very, very quickly after we have any kind of grading,” Seavers said.

But the most common objections were about the proximity of the panels to people’s homes as well as the potential disruption to the area’s wildlife.

“I don’t think everybody here is against solar, they’re against the location of this solar farm,” resident David Kazery said at the meeting. “We respect your hustle, but this venture could be done elsewhere that is more rural. I know y’all think that this is an extremely rural area, but there’s a lot of people here.”

Brian O’Shea, director of Public Engagement for Apex, said Soul City Solar will be at least 300 feet from other occupied properties. Other company officials reiterated at the meeting that the private landowners made the decision to lease their property for this use.

“We are working with landowners who chose to work with us,” Chris Hawk, a development manager for Apex, said. “They will continue to be the landowners at the end of the project. We will return the land to them for them to continue to use as they see fit, whether that’s farming or any other venture.”

It’s proposal, the company explained, is for Soul City Solar to exist for at least 30 years, and that it will be responsible for decommissioning and recycling the solar panels at the “end of (the panels’) useful life.”

The project would include “agricultural fencing” and “wildlife corridors” to allow animals to move throughout the space, Hawk added. Residents testified that deer, turkeys, and even black bears roamed the area.

Raymond residents wait outside a packed meeting room in the Raymond Library for the Hinds County Planning Commission’s discussion on the Soul City Solar project, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Throughout the public comment period, residents passionately expressed their disagreement with the idea.

“I was offered money for my land (for Soul City Solar),” said Bolton resident Mike Brewer. “It’s not about the money for us. Y’all are the greedy bastards.”

Nicole McWilliams, a Raymond resident, fought back tears talking about her concerns over runoff from the solar array, especially because of the farmland that Soul City would occupy.

“The construction that we’re fixing to do is on so much acreage of agricultural land, and there’s been pesticides and there’s been chicken manure,” McWilliams said. “This is our community, so it means a lot to me.”

The Board of Supervisors’ meeting to decide whether to approve Soul City Solar will be on June 17 at 9 a.m. at the Hinds County Chancery Court.

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