State Corporation Commission officials heard lengthy testimony in Richmond Thursday regarding the proposal of a massive solar power facility in western Spotsylvania County.
Residents of Fawn Lake, which borders the 6,000-plus acre site of the proposed solar plant, presented their concerns during the hearing, many of which center on potential health and environmental impacts that have come up at previous public hearings. Attorney’s and staff for Utah-based Sustainable Power Group LLC, an attorney representing Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and SCC attorneys also presented evidence and questioned witnesses during the hearing.
The SCC, which has regulatory authority of state utilities, must issue a certificate of public convenience and necessity in order for the proposal to proceed. If the certificate is issued, the company will continue the process of seeking a special-use permit application from the county to build the plant on land owned by a timber company and zoned agricultural.
Sustainable Power Group, also known as sPower, continues working on its plans. Company officials said during the hearing that sPower is working with county and state officials regarding environmental and health issues raised so far.
SPower wants to build a 500-megawatt solar facility off of West Catharpin Road. The site would have 1.8 million solar panels on sections of the property, covering sections totaling about 3,500 acres.
The energy produced by the solar facility would be sold to companies. Microsoft has already said it plans to purchase about half of the power from the plant.
During Thursday’s hearing, Fawn Lake resident Richard Genaille told the commissioners there are more than 2,400 residents in the surrounding area as well as streams on the property, things that require an “extra measure of due diligence” concerning the proposal.
Russell Mueller, who lives in Fawn Lake and represented residents in Thursday’s proceedings, focused most of his questions on key topics previously raised at public hearings in Spotsylvania: environmental and health impacts and what would happen should the facility fail, which would require a multi-million-dollar clean-up involving toxic chemicals that will be contained in the solar panels.
Mueller emphasized concerns over the facility’s potential impact on the underground aquifer.
He cited a study produced for residents indicating that the facility would devastate the groundwater supply in the area. He also raised concerns about stormwater runoff and the toxic chemicals contained in the solar panels the company plans to use.
He pointed out that the estimated extraction of 220 million gallons of water for construction of the facility could put the “aquifer at great risk of collapse.”
Garret Bean, a spokesman for sPower, disputed the report in an email after the proceedings.
Daniel Menahem, senior manager of development with sPower, said the company has reduced the expected water usage during construction by 35 percent.
Officials with sPower, the county, as well as Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality continue to work on questions regarding concerns of environmental and health impacts, according to testimony. The company also is working on a hydrology study for the proposal.
Timothy Biller, an attorney representing sPower, said county ordinances are aimed at preventing projects from causing adverse effects on the environment and residents.
SCC Chairman Mark C. Christie said at one point that it appears the special-use permit would address environmental and health impacts.
He also repeated several times that the SCC doesn’t have jurisdiction over environmental and health impacts of projects. Instead, the SCC focuses primarily on impacts such facilities would have to the electrical system and customers.
He, as well as SCC and sPower attorneys, spoke about agreements that will require the company to pay for necessary upgrades related to connecting the plant to the power grid. There also will be a requirement that the company will be liable for cleanup of the site when the facility shuts down. The company said the facility has a 35-year life span.
A potential issue that grabbed Christie’s attention was brought up by Fawn Lake resident David Hammond early in the proceeding.
He addressed what is known as the “duck curve.” This issue concerns the impact solar- and wind-generated electricity has had in such places as California, Germany and Denmark, all of which have integrated more renewable energy into their grids. The problems with those systems have hampered electrical reliability and increased costs for customers.
Solar power basically feeds too much electricity into those grids, forcing power companies to adjust by cutting back on the renewable energy “because conventional plants can’t be stopped and started quickly enough to accommodate it. That could mean higher costs—and ultimately limit PV’s benefits,” according to a February article by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which was provided by Hammond and introduced into evidence.
“We’re going to do what we can to protect rate payers,” Christie said.
Biller said integrating the facility’s power generation into the grid will “enhance reliability.”
While no decision was made by the SCC commissioners on Thursday, Christie possibly tipped his hand when he noted several times that state lawmakers and the governor support increased use of solar power. He noted a bill passed earlier this year by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam raising the cap of new renewable energy utilities from 50 megawatts to 5,000 megawatts.
Mueller also raised concerns other residents have brought up about five other LLCs sPower has created as part of the venture.
Company officials and attorneys repeated their earlier stance that it is common practice in the solar industry to use more than one company, describing it as a way to better run the business and financing aspects of such ventures.
Mueller also questioned whether sPower has the ability to build and maintain such a large facility.
SPower’s Menahem said the company is one of the largest solar companies in the world, adding that sPower built and maintains a 900 megawatt facility in California.