Oakey Ridge residents adamantly oppose solar farm

Published 2:32 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Residents of Oakey Ridge made their collective voices heard clearly during a public meeting Monday night that they do not support — and will continue to fight — a proposed solar farm project within their community.

Three representatives of Origis Energy attended the public meeting held at Oakey Ridge Baptist Church. Origis Energy is a Miami-based company proposing the Oakey Ridge solar farm which previously constructed an 80 megawatt solar farm in Wing. Nathan Rogers, director of project development for Origis, spoke for the company and said they were there to hear the community’s concerns.

Those in attendance voiced many concerns ranging from the impact on the environment and wildlife to the solar farm’s encroachment on family properties that have been passed down for generations.

During the approximately two-and-half-hour meeting, no local residents spoke in favor of the solar farm.

The project is designed to provide energy to Alabama Power, serving their lines between Mobile and Dothan. There are only a few residents inside Covington County that receive energy from Alabama Power, which residents brought up on several occasions.

“In 50 years, my son will have to deal with all the damage this project will have on our community. This doesn’t have anything to do with Covington County, but we will be the ones suffering. We’re here to protect what we love and all you see is dollar signs. This is our home. No one here wants this. You are here to provide power to people who are over an hour away. If it is so great for them, find land (in those communities),” a resident said.

There were also concerns regarding the construction phase of the project, including the approximate 600 workers as well as garbage, road maintenance and other infrastructure issues involved.

“The 600 workers would be involved in the project at various times, not being on-site at the same time. The number of workers will fluctuate depending on where we are in the project,” Rogers said, adding that workers would be housed in hotels.

Several in attendance said they are worried that the project is going to happen, regardless of the opposition raised by the residents.

“Is this a done deal, already? Are we just here today so you can have a rebuttal later?,” asked one resident.

Rogers said it is not a “done deal” until dirt is turned. “We have the option to lease the property, but we have not exercised that lease yet.”

The solar farm Origis constructed in Wing came up on multiple occasions.

“I have not heard anyone from Wing speak highly of the solar farm there,” said one resident.

Gail Wiggins, a multi-generation property owner in Oakey Ridge, said her home would be surrounded by the solar farm.

“If this goes in, you can walk into my yard and do a 360 and be right in the center (of the solar farm). I don’t want it. The way we found out about this was seeing a truck coming down the road that just kept stopping. When we asked what he was doing, he said he was surveying for solar panels. No one in here was contacted, only the large land owners, timber companies, who don’t even live here. It’s just to pad their pockets. I’m mad about it because we live on a five-generation farm and our grandsons and their families will be living there. We have no fire department, no county water, we have dirt roads and you’re going to bring 600 people in to build a solar farm. How is this community of people, who are not going to benefit from this mess, supposed to react? This is change none of us want, but we’re supposed to sit here and accept it. I think not,” Wiggins said.

Among the environmental concerns discussed had to do with runoff that could affect the community’s water supply.

“I’m concerned with the construction. All over you here about pollution in water systems. We don’t have county water out here. We are on wells. The water you have to draw for construction, will our wells go dry?,” one resident asked.

Rogers said some of the stories about water pollution have to do with road runoff. He said Origis will submit a detailed erosion control plan to the state, which has to sign off on it. He also said water usage for the project is minimal.

Using the Wing solar farm as an example, one resident said runoff would have to be an issue based on the amount of vegetation that would need to be removed.

“I know of three creeks that come off of that land. Am I supposed to just trust that you will stand behind that there will be no way possible this will poison my pond, poison our trees, and harm my water? I promise you if something like that happens, I will spend everything I have to sue everyone I can. Are you going to put in writing that there is no way you will harm our water,” one resident said.

“There will definitely be chemical spread,” a resident said. “We live dead center in this and our kids will be drinking this water every day.”

Another resident said her trust in Origis was broken when surveyors came onto her land. “The trust was broken on day one when you had surveyors come onto our property,” she said.

Another resident added that long-understood property lines have suddenly changed, encroaching further onto his property.

Money matters also came up during the meeting, especially as it pertains to possible tax abatements for the project.

While the project has not been designed, Rogers said it would be twice the size of the Wing project, approximately 1,000 acres of solar panels, which would provide 160 megawatts of energy. He added that most solar projects cost about $1 million per megawatt, which would put the costs for the Oakey Ridge project at about $160 million. Residents are concerned that county officials will provide tax abatements to Origis, similar to what was provided for the Wing project.

During the most recent county commission meeting a poll was taken among the commissioners where each said they would not vote in favor of tax abatements. The four in attendance Monday night were asked to come forward and each confirmed again that they would not vote for a tax abatement. Those in attendance were Greg White, Tommy McGaha, Lynne Holmes, and Michael Smith, who represents the Oakey Ridge community.

Origis officials at the meeting said they did not know how the lack of tax abatements would impact the project moving forward.

“Part of what we are here to do is learn more about your concerns and see if there are things we can do to persuade you that this is a good project. Maybe there is nothing, but maybe there is something,” Rogers said.

Many of the Oakey Ridge residents who spoke made it clear that there would be no support for the project.

“We don’t appreciate you being here. You’re going to ruin our land and our water system. Best thing you can do is go to a Democrat state,” said resident Jim Wood.

Matthew McClellan, who spoke and asked multiple questions on behalf of others in the community, said the residents of Oakey Ridge will do anything they can to stop the project for coming in and changing their community.

“This is not a power plant. This is our community. This is our home and we will fight until the end to keep it as it is. The data you provide doesn’t matter today and it won’t matter tomorrow. We love it here and will continue to fight this,” said Matthew McClellan.