solar farm (copy)

The Board of Supervisors agenda for Tuesday’s regular meeting includes the proposed solar facility that has touched off a battle in Spotsylvania County.

Supervisors will address the 500-megawatt power plant in rural western Spotsylvania two weeks after a marathon public hearing that attracted a large crowd and more than 100 speakers.

Utah-based Sustainable Power Group, also known as sPower, is seeking three special-use permits to build a $615 million facility with 1.8 million solar panels covering about half of a more than 6,300-acre property. The facility would measure up with the largest solar generating plants in the country, most of which are built in remote, sparsely populated areas.

The Spotsylvania site for years has been used for timber operations. It is in a rural area and zoned agricultural, but there are homes and neighborhoods nearby, which is a key complaint by the opposition.

With a mountain of information to digest, Supervisor David Ross said it appears unlikely a vote on the fate of the project will be taken Tuesday.

County staff recommends approval of the solar project, with a list of requirements addressing a variety of issues. The Planning Commission recommended approval of the smallest of the three connecting sites in the sPower plan, but denial of the larger ones.

The proposal has been winding through the process for the better part of a year, and during that time, a vocal, aggressive and in some ways well-organized opposition has emerged.

The proposal comes at a time when the solar industry is booming, with plants opening in droves on both coasts.

The strong opposition by many Spotsylvania residents is an attempt to buck that trend, and they may not be alone.

California’s San Bernardino County recently banned large-scale solar and wind projects on 1 million acres of private land, according to a Los Angeles Times story. Residents pressed for the ban, describing existing large solar facilities as eyesores that destroy desert ecosystems and lead to larger dust storms.

Opponents of sPower’s Spotsylvania project have leveled similar complaints, but sPower has disagreed with critics on most points and said its project will be screened from the view of the nearby residents. County and state officials have scoured the documents, evaluated the proposal and established rules and regulations sPower would have to follow if the project gains approval.

The issues run the gamut, touching on safety, accountability, health and environmental impacts and effects on the local economy. In the report for Tuesday’s meeting, county staff and sPower address those issues.

Too big?

Residents who live near or on the border of the site say the project is too big to be built in a residential area, claiming there are unknown risks to their health and the environment.

County staff notes in its report that conditions have been established to “directly or indirectly mitigate potential negative impacts of the project’s size.” And sPower has agreed to build the project in phases.

The staff report also notes that the Planning Commission found the project was in accordance with the county’s Comprehensive Plan regarding the area—a finding opponents dispute.

Health Impacts

Residents have raised concerns about solar panels containing cadmium telluride. The company wants to fill part of its site with panels containing the toxic substance.

The Planning Commission recommended banning the cadmium telluride panels. County staff does not recommend banning the panels, but suggests “soil testing and remediation conditions.”

The company wants to use the panels containing cadmium telluride and argues that studies have shown the panels to be safe, and that the substance is not the same as cadmium, which is much more toxic than cadmium telluride.

Environmental impacts

Critics say the project would have a detrimental effect on the environment, including animals and fauna, along with creating potential erosion problems.

The staff report notes that conditions are in place to address environmental impacts, including oversight and recommendations from the Department of Environmental Quality.

Staff also addressed reports of birds dying because of heat generated by solar panels. In those cases, facilities used mirrors to reflect light to heating towers, something the Spotsylvania facility would not use, according to county staff.

A so-called “heat island effect” also is addressed in the report. The company declares this effect, which purportedly causes temperature spikes around solar facilities, would not happen at the county site because the climate is different than areas where temperatures do spike around solar panels.

A consultant for the county determined there “is no heat island,” but believes temporary heat spikes could happen with the Spotsylvania facility. That finding led staff and the Planning Commission to recommend 350-foot setbacks between solar equipment and property lines. Staff recommends these setbacks only for properties with houses, while the Planning Commission recommended them for the entire property.

SPower says those setbacks would negatively impact the project plans. The company is seeking 100-foot setbacks from property lines and 350-foot setbacks from homes.

To address potential erosion problems, county staff recommends limiting the scope of land “disturbance” to just 400 acres at a time. The company has included erosion-control plans in accordance with the county’s stipulations, but wants to be able to work on larger swaths of property at a given time.

Economic impacts

Opponents say the project would be a net money loser for the county by negating potential tax revenues from new homes and by driving down property values around the facility.

The solar company contends that the facility would generate millions of dollars in tax revenue while also creating temporary and permanent jobs and attracting future technology companies to the county. The company already has agreements to sell the facility’s power to such tech giants as Microsoft and Apple.

The economic figures sPower is using come from a study for which it paid. The information was used in sPower’s application process with the State Corporation Commission. The SCC approved the proposal and county staff confirmed the study findings.

Opponents dispute sPower’s claims. Some critics have said they contacted other localities with large solar facilities and officials said they did not experience such fiscal benefits and didn’t attract other businesses.

Opponents also say the project will lower surrounding property values, with some Realtors saying prospective buyers already are shying away from buying property in Fawn Lake, which borders a small section of the site.

To rebut these claims, sPower produced a study indicating there is no proof property values would decline.

County staff checked property values around two Virginia solar facilities, one in Louisa County and the other in Essex County, and found no such property value impacts, according to the report.

Rate spikes?

Critics of the proposed site say solar facilities can strain electrical grids, leading to rate increases for customers.

Both the SCC and PJM Interconnection (which manages electricity in Washington, D.C., and 13 states, including Virginia) require that new facilities have “no adverse effect on reliability of electric service,” according to the staff report.

Accountability

Critics of the proposal say sPower’s use of multiple limited liability corporations for the project—and serious problems created by a large California utility provider—raise questions about the company’s true aims and future viability.

The company says it will not be impacted by the troubles of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which filed for bankruptcy as a result of its role in devastating wildfires in California over the past two years.

SPower has agreements with PG&E to operate three solar facilities in California, the largest of which is 5.25 megawatts.

Another major concern for opponents is the future decommissioning of the site.

In its report, county staff says there are “extensive conditions related to [the] decommissioning plan, execution, cost estimate, and bonding.”

The company claims in the report that “requiring either a cash bond or an irrevocable letter of credit is onerous” and suggests that it provide a surety bond through a AAA-rated company “and personal guarantees from [sPower’s] parent company.”

The company also wants to include the solar equipment’s future recycling value in the decommissioning plan, something critics and county officials oppose.

County staff said in the report that, since the decommissioning plan would be re-evaluated every two years, the “county may feel comfortable allowing for a credit for recycling.” Yet the staff does not recommend giving that credit.

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Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com