A Chesterfield County site long eyed for economic development could be going from “megasite” to megawatts.
One year after local opposition put a stop to the proposed “Matoaca Mega Site,” the bulk of the property southwest of Chester is being pitched for a solar farm-data center combo by Torch Clean Energy, a renewable energy company based in Boulder, Colorado.
Torch filed plans with the county over the weekend for the hybrid facility on 1,500 acres of the nearly 1,700-acre site.
One part of the project would consist of a solar farm that would generate 150 megawatts to primarily power an adjoining data center or centers.
The data center portion would comprise about 300 acres and employ about 100 workers through one or more users. A site map included with the plans shows potential locations for as many as four data centers, with a total building footprint of about 1 million square feet.
Torch representatives said the company is in talks with multiple data center developers and potential end users but did not disclose names. Comparable facilities in the region include the Facebook and QTS data centers in Henrico County and Capital One’s data center in Chesterfield’s Meadowville Technology Park.
Coined “Chester Solar Technology Park,” the development would represent a $2 billion investment in the site previously pitched for the so-called “Matoaca Mega Site,” envisioned to attract advanced manufacturers that would invest more than $1 billion in the local economy and create up to 4,000 direct jobs, according to the Chesterfield County Economic Development Authority, which led the proposal.
It also would be the first of its kind in Virginia, according to Torch Clean Energy President Jon Kilberg, an Albemarle County native who founded the company in 2006 after stints with the federal Overseas Private Investment Corp. and Washington, D.C.-based Akkadian Private Ventures.
“We think that it makes the Richmond area, and Chesterfield County in particular, an incredibly attractive location for what has largely been an industry that has focused its investment in Northern Virginia and Prince William (County) specifically,” Kilberg said. “This is impossible to do up there, and we think this will appeal to large data center customers.”
The county’s months-in-the-making megasite proposal was withdrawn last May following public opposition and scrutiny from the EDA board on how the proposal was rolled out. EDA leaders encouraged county supervisors to purchase and secure the site as an economic development opportunity, but no such action was taken in the past year.
The site, situated south of the intersection of Branders Bridge and Bradley Bridge roads, was proposed in 2007 for a mixed-use development called Branner Station, which would have added 5,000 homes to Chesterfield’s already residential-heavy tax base and crowded school system.
Concerns over impacts to nearby neighborhoods and infrastructure were among points made in last year’s opposition to the megasite proposal. Torch Clean Energy President Jon Kilberg said his company’s project would be different, citing data centers and solar farms as low traffic generators that area residents wouldn’t know were there unless they looked.
“The beauty to localities with projects like these is they don’t tend to take a lot of county services,” Kilberg said. “Facilities like this employ a few hundred people at most; they don’t negatively impact traffic; they don’t require construction of schools or large infrastructure investments by the county. They’re good neighbors and they pay taxes.”
While the county EDA is not involved in the project, with no county funding or incentives proposed, Chesterfield Economic Development Director Garrett Hart said the project could accomplish what the county had set out to do with the megasite.
“We see it as a very high-value opportunity with very minimal impacts,” Hart said. “Data centers are the most tax-dense properties we can build. The solar farm is a unique opportunity, to have green power next to a data center, but it’s the data center that Economic Development is really interested in.
“The proposal of data centers on that property could give us the $2.5 billion that we were looking for when we were looking for other megasite opportunities,” he said. “It gives us the tax base we were looking for. Not necessarily the number of jobs, but that might be a better fit.”
Hart said discussions with Torch started during the megasite proposal rollout last year. Unlike that proposal, which projected a $200 million cost for the county to develop the site and build a facility for a potential user, the Torch project would not involve county investment and would not require a rail connection or connector road.
The development would be served by an available Dominion Energy transmission system that Kilberg said not only would power the data center component but also feed Dominion’s grid to serve other area customers. Dominion would own a transmission substation to be located on the site.
Other proffers included in the application involve construction of a water tank and a wastewater pump station, if needed, to supply effluent used to cool the data centers. The site would include pedestrian and bike paths, and provide right-of-way along Branders Bridge Road on the property’s eastern boundary for a planned trail connecting Ashland and Petersburg.
Existing wetlands and topography would be preserved, and Kilberg said the site would be filled with native grasses that support pollinators. Also, buildings would be buffered from view from area roadways, said Sara Born, a project manager with Torch leading the effort locally.
“It’s our intent to make sure that no one from Branders Bridge Road or residences are going to be able to see this,” Born said. “We’re going to work super-hard to make sure that this site is camouflaged. It’s not going to be the kind of thing where driving down the road you’re going to be able to see it.”
Kilberg also noted the solar energy facilities are lower to the ground and wouldn’t be visible from a distance. The company is working with local engineering firm Timmons Group on its plans.
Development would be financed with a combination of equity from Torch’s funding backers and project finance debt, the latter of which would be arranged closer to construction and after permitting is complete, representatives said. Financing for the data center portion would depend on securing long-term demand for the project.
While the hybrid approach would be the first of its kind in the state, Hart said it also would be a first for Torch, which has developed projects across the country producing 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy, with others in development projected to produce 3,000 more.
Those projects include Red Horse, a 101-megawatt solar-and-wind farm combo in Arizona. Kilberg said Torch also is working with a utility in that state to build what he said will be the largest battery storage project in the country.
“We really pride ourselves on trying to push innovative solutions, to serve the ratepayer by lowering prices and also the community by trying to drive economic development,” Kilberg said. “We see what we do in this sort of green wave that’s sweeping Virginia being a plus for economic development.”
Kilberg said the data center hybrid is ideal for the Chesterfield site, which he said came to his attention before he knew about its status as a proposed megasite. Brennen Keene, a McGuireWoods attorney representing Torch in its rezoning application with the county, described the concept as furthering renewable energy requirements from data center users such as Facebook in Henrico.
“One of the criteria that Facebook had was to ensure that there was an equivalent amount of renewable energy that was going to be constructed and generated in Virginia, to offset the amount of energy used by that data center,” Keene said. “We think that this takes that approach one step further by co-locating those uses in a way that’s very positive from an economic development aspect.”
Torch is applying to rezone the acreage from residential and commercial zoning to agricultural use, with the solar farm, data center and related infrastructure to be achieved through conditional use permitting. Keene said Torch has purchase options on the property, though he declined to detail terms or conditions for a purchase.
Hart, the county economic development director, said the proposal falls in line with his department’s marketing efforts to attract data centers to Chesterfield, which recently lowered its data center tax rate to be the lowest in the state.
He said such development is further spurred by the region’s connection with the Virginia Beach Cable Landing Station, where the Telxius subsea cables connecting data centers in South America and Europe come ashore.
“It’s something we don’t have in the commonwealth, where you’re going to have a large power user who prefers to have green sources located right next to a green source,” Hart said of the Torch project.
“We see this as a very viable, unique opportunity for a data center, either a multitenant data center or a single-tenant, large-user data center,” Hart said. “This is their first foray into a data center combination, so I think they’re going to be looking for somebody with a lot of experience in data center development as a partner in the future.”
Kilberg said he foresees additional hybrid developments in the region and elsewhere in Virginia. He said such potential is a motivator to make a strong first impression with the Chester site.
“We see this as being the first of its kind in Virginia, and we want to make sure that we do it correctly, with the community involved as our partners in it,” Kilberg said. “We don’t see this as being a one-off. We think that this is a model that can be done other places within Chesterfield and other places within the state, so it’s important we get it right on the first one.”