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Solar fields proposed for Fayette, Greenbrier counties

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A proposal to build three solar-energy fields in Fayette and Greenbrier counties could create West Virginia's first utility-scale solar electrical generation capacity, but the project appears to be in the early stages and is getting little attention.

New York-based Solar Thin Films Inc. is working on plans for up to 35 megawatts of generation capacity at the three sites at Alderson, Crawley and Fayetteville.

In late July, Solar Thin announced an "agreement in principle" with a local landowner to design and build the $140 million project. Then, two weeks ago, Solar Thin said it had signed a contract on Sept. 13 for the solar fields.

"We think it's a great project," Solar Thin CEO James Solano said Wednesday. "We think it will really benefit West Virginia."

Jeff Herholdt, director of the state's Division of Energy, learned of the Solar Thin project when a reporter inquired about it. "This is news to us," Herholdt said.

Nationally, solar energy remains a tiny share of total U.S. electrical generation, but solar generation was projected to increase by 81 percent in 2013 and 76 percent in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The capacity of the three sites proposed by Solar Thin is relatively small, especially compared to a large coal-fired power plant like American Electric Power's John Amos, which has a capacity of 2,900 megawatts.

Still, Herholdt said West Virginia doesn't have any utility-scale solar generation facilities, and that Solar Films is talking about making "a substantial investment" in the state.

"This would be an unprecedented development," Herholdt said. "This would be an amazing energy development for West Virginia."

Solar Thin reached lease agreements with a new local company, Tri-State Solar/Wind Energy LLC, formed by Carl N. Graybeal, a former coal operator and Summersville businessman. Graybeal could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

According to Solar Thin, Graybeal owns the property where the three photo-voltaic, or PV, solar fields would be built. PV is a method of generating electricity by converting solar radiation using solar panels composed of solar cells.

The plans call for one 15-megawatt site off Wolf Creek Road near Fayetteville, and 10-megawatt fields in Sam Black Church and Alderson, both in Greenbrier County.

A news release said some ground clearing on the first site was to begin this month, with all three fields expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2014. A later announcement said installation work would begin before the end of 2013, with all three sites finished within 18 months.

Solar Thin Films calls itself "an environmentally conscious company" that works to bring new products to market. It focuses on "fiber reinforced plastics," as well as solar energy and waste-to-energy.

So far, Solano said, his company is still trying to obtain agreements for local utilities to purchase electricity generated by the solar fields.

Solano said the initial announcement of the West Virginia project has prompted landowners to inquire of his firm about at least six other potential solar sites in West Virginia.

"There is actually quite a bit of response to putting up more solar," Solano said. "Coal's going by the wayside. This is a really great project. We're excited about getting it done."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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