A decision appears to be on the horizon for a proposal to build a massive solar facility in western Spotsylvania County.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday listened to various remaining issues and concerns related to the proposed 500- megawatt solar facility it couldn’t address at its last meeting.
The supervisors eventually voted to use a stringent list of conditions, set by the Planning Commission in January, as a so-called baseline, with details to be hashed out at the next meeting, April 9, when a vote is possible.
The $615 million solar farm proposal has pitted many residents against Utah-based Sustainable Power Group, a big player in the solar industry that wants to construct a facility with 1.8 million solar panels, planted on three tracts covering more than half of the 6,300-plus-acre site in the Wilderness area.
The facility would measure up with some of the largest industrial solar sites in the U.S.
The company, also known as sPower, says the project would be environmentally clean and safe and that it would be an economic boon for the county.
Opponents, many of whom live near the site, say the project is too big, too close to residents and presents unknown risks.
Both sides have presented mountains of information and testimony as the project has worked through the process since late 2017, when sPower filed for special-use permits on the agriculturally zoned property.
The company is seeking three special-use permits, one for each of the sections on the site. The planning commission recommended denial of the two larger sites and approval of the smallest one. All told, the three sites would take up about 3,300 acres.
The Planning Commission conditions cover a multitude of issues, including several that have dominated the contentions between opponents and supporters.
Use of solar panels containing cadmium telluride and the potential for the toxin to leach into the environment has been a big issue, which was again addressed Tuesday.
A county consultant with more than a decade experience with solar projects told the board he pored over studies, including recent research by Virginia Tech. He said studies have found no evidence of contamination, even after an event in which a tornado battered a solar site in California.
Also, a senior scientist for First Solar, the company that produces the cadmium telluride panels, told supervisors the company has been manufacturing the panels for two decades and that it has received safety awards from such entities as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another issue cited by residents is the potential fire hazard the facility would present.
Deputy Fire Chief Steven Cooper, with the county’s Fire, Rescue & Emergency Management, told supervisors the county has the equipment and resources to handle potential fires at the site. But he added that adequate access would be crucial.
Another key issue, the potential economic benefit of the project, also was addressed again Tuesday.
Residents who formed Concerned Citizens, and an expert the group hired, have said the project would hurt property values and that other uses of the land would prove better long-term tax generators for the county.
The company has countered those assertions with its own experts, whose studies indicate the project would not hurt property values and that it would prove economically beneficial for Spotsylvania.
Asked by board Chairman Paul Trampe to speak Tuesday, Steve Smith, a local licensed appraiser, said other uses of the site, such as a 55-and-over community, would generate more revenue for the county than the solar facility.
“It’s simple math,” he said.
The company’s expert appraiser, Chris Kaila, repeated that his studies found no changes in property values around solar sites he researched.
Smith did not dispute Kaila’s appraisal findings, but said the other solar sites and surrounding homes were not a case of comparing “apples to apples” to the Spotsylvania site. He said the locally proposed facility is much larger than the other solar sites and that homes surrounding the Spotsylvania site hold much more value than homes at the other locations.
Decommissioning, or clearing the site whenever it closes, was another key issue addressed Tuesday. The original agreement calls for the site to be operating for 40 years, but that could be longer.
The Planning Commission conditions call for a decommissioning bond totaling approximately $36 million, something sPower contends is too high and that a credit for recycling should be included to decrease that figure.
The supervisors appear set to stick with the total bond figure, which is based on each “disturbed” acre.
Also, as part of the conditions, the bond would be re-evaluated every two years to determine if the total is adequate and fair.
The supervisors have until April 30 to make a decision on the proposal.