By Bill Spinks

Midlothian’s legacy industries have taken a bad rap in recent years because of alleged effects on environment. However, one of those industries is making an effort to utilize renewable energy, and its proposal for a solar power farm was approved during Tuesday’s meeting of the Midlothian City Council.

A specific use permit for a 720-acre solar facility to serve the local Gerdau Steel plant was unanimously approved. The parcel of land that will hold the farm is generally to the north of U.S. Highway 67 between Ward Road and South Weatherford Road, with a small portion south of the highway and adjacent to the Gerdau plant.

City planning director Trenton Robertson said the small portion south of the highway will be used as a collection point where the power from the farm will be processed and sent to the Gerdau facility.

The purpose of the solar farm, Robertson said, is to reduce Gerdau’s impact on the power grid during peak demand hours, particularly during the summer, to help avoid the possibility of brownouts and production disruptions. Robertson also said solar power was chosen because it is a sustainable and clean source that will provide the amount of power the plant needs.

The property is located in the city’s Industrial Module in Midlothian’s comprehensive plan.

Robertson said the solar farm meets all the established requirements, and the property will be surrounded by a 20-foot landscape buffer and security fencing with the exception of a wooded wetland area that will remain untouched. The solar panel arrays will tilt to follow the sun throughout the day.

“We believe the way it’s been designed and laid out will be a benefit not only to Gerdau, but also the surrounding community,” Robertson told the council. ”This will also allow for more sustainable energy in this area. It won’t cause any emissions, and it will provide flexibility in the future when it comes to their power needs.”

The ordinance has no end date, but does spell out what actions must be performed if and when Gerdau decides to close the farm, including removal of all arrays.

The council also heard from Stan Baucum, director of structural products at the Gerdau Midlothian facility and a former city councilmember; and Dean Peery, who is a vice president in the company and the plant’s general manager.

Baucum said the plant’s payroll is over $100 million per year and the company also pays more than $7 million in sales and property taxes each year, a lot of which benefits the city and school district. Peery added that Gerdau accounts for more than 1,500 total jobs in the city, which includes about 900 direct employees as well as contractors and customers.

“This plant was built in 1974,” Baucum said. “In the 80s and 90s we put a lot of capital expenditure into that plant and it became the lowest-cost steel producer in the world for those products that we make. The plant’s getting old. It requires a lot of investment now, and now we’re having to step up and make really significant investments to keep this plant alive for the next 50 years.”

Peery said electricity prices spike in the summer during peak demand, which makes operating the plant economically unfeasible and threatens the mill’s viability. Gerdau’s solar farm would allow the mill to continue to operate while at the same time reducing the overall load on the local power grid.

Peery added that the panels will not exceed eight feet in height, well below the city’s maximum of 15 feet; the council’s approval allowed for a 12-foot height limit. The life expectancy of an array, he said, is 35 years; and what power Gerdau does not consume will go into the grid.

Not everyone spoke out in favor of the solar project. Debra Markwardt, an adjacent resident who lives on Wyatt Road, spoke out against the solar farm and said her property will be surrounded by the farm on three sides, ruining the country scenery and causing her property value to be reduced.

“Nowhere in the U.S. is there a 720-acre solar farm in the middle of a city,” Markwardt said. “They are in the desert or in a place with no residents next to it.”

However, Dusty Minter, a longtime Gerdau employee, spoke in favor of the solar farm and said the project, if approved, would inject “countless dollars” into the community over its two-year construction period. Minter reiterated that the farm will provide an alternative power source that will keep the plant operational during peak demand in the summer.

“This will help revive local businesses, hotels, restaurants and retail stores that have suffered during the COVID crisis,” Minter said. “I think I can speak for all my coworkers when I say we are all very blessed and thankful that Gerdau can and continues to provide employment during these unprecedented times.”