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An Unlikely Development Brings Together Virginia's Past, Present, and Future on a Solar Farm

February 05, 2018

By Val Newcomb

For generations, a consortium of Baptist churches in eastern Virginia have struggled to preserve a piece of the region’s history—in particular, a plot of land with a rich and important history—that helped shape the community in the first half of the 20th Century.

According to the 1860 census, 500,000 enslaved African Americans lived in Virginia—more than any other state in the nation at that time. It wouldn’t be until decades after Reconstruction ended in 1877 that all children in Virginia had equal access to an education. As the 19th Century came to a close, a group of visionary members of the Southside Rappahannock Baptist Association (SRBA) saw a need for a high school for African American teens, many of whom were the descendants of slaves. More than 2,000 students graduated from the Rappahannock Industrial Academy (RIA), which operated from 1902–1948.

In the 70 years since RIA closed its doors, the SRBA has been pondering how to honor the site’s legacy, while also planning for the land’s future. Which is where solar development becomes a surprising central figure in the unfolding story of the land.

115 years after RIA first opened, James Hill, president of the SRBA, called Coronal Energy and inquired about leasing land for a solar farm. “Phone calls like this rarely amount to a viable development opportunity, much less a fully realized solar farm,” explains Kyle West, Coronal’s vice president of development. “Mr. Hill was looking for an innovative way to raise funds for the SRBA’s ongoing work in the community, while maintaining the historic legacy of the property. He was so passionate that it caught my attention, and when our team reviewed the project we all got excited about the fact that it looked like a viable solar site.”

Five years after that first phone call, the Essex Solar Center—which officially “opened” with a ceremonial ribbon cutting last month—quietly generates 20 MWac of clean, renewable energy, enough to power 5,000 homes annually. Coronal sells the power to utility Dominion Energy under a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA). The 174-acre facility comprises two land parcels, one that wraps around the ruins of the foundation of the Rappahannock Industrial Academy and another that is owned by a neighboring family farm.

At last month’s ribbon-cutting event, representatives of the SRBA were on hand for a standing room only celebration that marked the next chapter in the proud history of the school, the association, and a special community in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. Coronal is honored to be part of the story.

Val Newcomb is vice president of marketing and communications of Coronal Energy

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