Tiny Moore County earns $100 million plus solar farm investment

Silicon Ranch’s 53 MWac Millington Solar Farm at the NSA Mid-South naval base is currently the largest operating solar facility in the state. When it’s completed, the solar facility in Moore County will be nearly four times larger. (Image Provided)

Big things can happen in small towns. On Tuesday, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced the second biggest thing to happen in Lynchburg in 150 years and it happened thanks to the regional utility, a family with deep Lynchburg roots, and a Nashville-based solar energy company named Silicon Ranch and with the full-throated support of Metro Moore County and Motlow State Community College. Let us explain.

A 200-megawatt capacity solar farm will be built on Moore County land currently owned by the Cumberland Springs Land Company. It is an over $100 million investment in renewable energy — the largest solar project ever announced in the state of Tennessee — and it’s happening in one of its smallest counties.

Moore County’s Motlow family owns the Cumberland Spring Land Company. They formed it from acreage aggregated by Jack Daniel’s Distillery owner Lem Motlow in the early 1900s and it has been passed down from one generation to next since.

From 1941-46, the family leased the land to the U.S. government as part of Camp Forrest, a World War II training facility. At one time, as many as 13,000 troops and nine artillery ranges existed there. The Motlows formed the Cumberland Springs Land Company in 1946 and until recently altered the private forest little due to the fact that it is full of trees with a long maturation period like white oaks as well as the knowledge that unexploded ordinances were left behind. In the 1990’s, they began timber harvesting to pay the property taxes in addition to the row crop farming, hunting leases, and commercial leases.

As part of this Middle Tennessee solar project, the forestry company would sell a portion of the contiguous tract to Silicon Ranch for a large-scale solar project. The solar energy produced would then be sold to TVA and distributed by local and regional utilities like Duck River Electric Membership Cooperative (DREMC) to specific buyers.

Little metro to power big metro

It is all part of TVA’s nationally recognized Green Invest program, which helps match solar farms with big energy buyers like auto manufactures, data centers, local power companies, cities, and universities.

One of the biggest buyers of the solar energy that will be produced in Metro Lynchburg Moore County will be Metro Nashville Davidson County. They have agreed to buy half of the the 200-megawatts that will be produced locally. Other buyers include the Knoxville Utility District, the Vanderbilt University system, and our very own Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

“Our commitment to making great whiskey is only matched by our commitment to preserving the world we call home through sustainable practices,” said Jack Daniel’s Vice President and Assistant General Manager Melvin Keebler. “We’re excited to be the first distillery to sign a Green Invest deal that will provide nearly three-quarters of our electricity needs. Now the world’s most iconic whiskey is even greener.”

A second major industry for Moore County

Folks in Lynchburg and Moore County have long pondered a riddle: how do we add more industry, more jobs, and increase the tax base while maintaining our quaint, small town feel? Mayor Bonnie Lewis thinks the new solar farm is the perfect win-win.

“This project will inject money into Metro Moore while requiring minimal community services and not adding wear and tear to our infrastructure,” she said.

In addition to the capital investment, the solar farm’s construction will also produce around 500 construction jobs. Also, Silicon Ranch will purchase, not lease, the land meaning an immediate bump in property tax revenues as the land will likely be rezoned from farmland (the lowest tax rate) to industrial. As a Independent Power Producer (IPP), Silicon Ranch does not qualify as a public utility, and therefore, according to the company, will pay property taxes over the life of the project.

Silicon Ranch officials say as property owners in our county, they plan to make additional investments in Moore County over and above the taxes they’ll pay, as they do in other communities they serve such as educational partnerships, local scholarship dollars, and/or charitable contributions.

The farm-to-outlet movement

Rural communities enjoy lots of land and lower energy needs. Big cities consume large amount of energy but possess little available land. The Moore County solar project will be just the latest in a push to connect rural communities with solar power projects in what Silicon Ranch calls the farm-to-outlet movement.

“The Tennessee Valley is our home, and Silicon Ranch is honored to be part of this compelling story that demonstrates what’s possible when partners work together with a shared commitment to our local communities,” said Reagan Farr, Silicon Ranch Co-Founder and CEO. “Thanks to the leadership of our friends at TVA, local power companies such as DREMC, and visionary companies such as Jack Daniel’s, Silicon Ranch is on pace to invest more than $1 billion across the Valley, and we are proud to expand this legacy to Moore County.”

Solar farms are nothing new to middle Tennessee. Last year, the company announced a 35-megawatt facility in Bell Buckle that will come online in 2022. Once operational, that facility will provide energy for Vanderbilt University as well through TVA, DREMC, and Nashville Electric Service (NES). They have installed more than three million solar modules at farms across the country in other rural communities such as Selmer, Tennessee (population 4,396) and Blakely, Georgia (population 5,068) as well as on the rooftop of a Nashville not-for-profit.

The solar panels themselves produce zero electromagnetic fields (EMF), but the DC and AC cables that connect the panels to the inverters and the transmission line at the point of interconnection to the grid do generate a negligible amount of EMF.

“For the purpose of scale and example, the EMF field strength at the fence of the solar project is less that a personal computer, TV, refrigerator, microwave, on the electrical wiring in homes,” Silicon Ranch officials said.

In fact, the panels are so safe, that Silicon Ranch plans to add sheep grazing to the project to control vegetation and regenerate the land.

“The Moore County facility will feature Silicon Ranch’s holistic approach to land management, a model we’ve trademarked,” the company told The Times. “Under this unique platform, Silicon Ranch will restore the land to a functioning shortgrass ecosystem while ensuring the property is in agricultural production through managed sheep grazing. Key to this approach is managing the land based on close observations of soil, grass, and the water cycle, resulting in quantifiable ecological, economic, and social outcomes that are backed by third-party verified standards.”

Positive, forward moving trickle-down effect

As the project moves forward, local leaders are excited about the potential positive trickle-down effects from the solar farm. One of those is the possibility of creating educational partnerships with Motlow State Community College to develop apprenticeships and certifications associated with solar energy.

“This partnership creates an opportunity for Motlow State Community College to engage in broader sustainable programs,” said Motlow President Dr. Michael Torrence. “We envision the possibility of micro-credentials, apprenticeships, and other supportive pathways that align with an ever expanding sustainability mission. We could not be more pleased to align even further with our Moore County partners. The future is not simply bright, but it’s evolving too.”

Though all the agreements are signed, the actual location for the solar farms has not yet been finalized and the project still needs to pass an environmental review.

To learn more about TVA’s Green Invest program, click here. To learn more about Nashville-based Silicon Ranch, click here. You can also keep up with the Cumberland Springs Land Company including their prescribed burning schedule and local land management practices by visiting their Facebook page. •

{The Lynchburg Times is the only daily newspaper in Lynchburg. Covering Metro Moore County government, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Nearest Green Distillery, Tims Ford State Park, Motlow State Community College, Moore County High School, Moore County Middle School, Lynchburg Elementary, Raider Sports, plus regional and state news.}