The Spotsylvania County Planning Commission meeting lasted well into Wednesday evening as members dissected the plans and conditions for a massive solar facility’s special-use permit request.
But the commission took no vote.
Instead, by 10:30 p.m., the commission voted to continue the meeting to Jan. 16 to allow staff to adjust details in the special-use permit, including a slew of conditions aimed at addressing various key issues raised with the proposed 500-megawatt solar facility in western Spotsylvania.
The meeting was held at the Marshall Center in anticipation of an overflow of residents who have showed up at previous meetings in droves to ask questions and to oppose the project. With the public hearing aspect closed after a pair of hearings, there was a relatively light crowd Wednesday.
But there was much back and forth between county staff, commissioners and the applicant, Sustainable Power Group Inc. The key topics were covered—water usage and erosion control; safety; toxic materials in the solar panels; burning of timber refuse; home value impacts; and the cost to eventually clear the site.
There appeared to be accord on many of the conditions suggested by staff, but disagreements remain on certain aspects of the proposal.
Sustainable Power Group, also known as sPower, wants to install approximately 1.5 million solar panels on several tracts of a more than 6,300-acre timber property. The solar farm, the largest such proposal in the U.S., would send energy into the current grid. The company already has agreements to sell the energy to major high-tech companies Apple and Microsoft, as well as the University of Richmond.
The Board of Supervisors will have the final say on the project, and will hold its own public hearing before any final vote.
County staff recommended approval of the project in its report, contingent on sPower agreeing to conditions.
The company already has agreed to make changes in the project and various conditions set by county staff. But officials disputed a variety of issues and concerns raised by residents.
One such change made by the company involves water usage. The company has agreed to use the county water system instead of ground water, but has three wells on the site. Several commissioners said the wells should be capped, and sPower attorney Charlie Payne said the company would do that.
The company brought in an expert, Vasilis M. Fthenakis, to address another issue, cadmium telluride, which is encased in 30 percent of the panels planned for the site.
Residents have raised concerns about the toxicity of cadmium telluride. But Fthenakis, a senior research scientist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, told the commission the panels with cadmium telluride pose no real threat.
The panels “are as safe as the best technologies,” said Fthenakis, who according to his Columbia biography is a leading proponent of incorporating renewable energy as a source for U.S. electricity generation. He and other sPower officials also downplayed any threat of the panels breaking and leaking the chemical, telling the commissioners the panels are strong enough to withstand catastrophic weather.
The company also asked local real estate appraiser Christian Kaila to study potential impacts to home values around the facility, something residents have pointed to as a big concern. Kaila told the commission there is “no proof or support” that home values would drop because of the facility.
Two areas of contention with conditions involve the cost to clear the site when it closes and setbacks separating solar panels and homes.
Payne said the county’s potential requirement of 350-foot setbacks from property lines would be vastly more than other such facilities and would “punish” sPower. He said the figure was chosen because of a misconception and that many of the homes would be much farther from any panels anyway.
Planning Department Director Wanda Parrish disagreed that there was a misconception. Planning Commission Chairman Gregg Newhouse said some of the setback conditions seemed onerous compared with other special-use permits and should be analyzed.
The company and staff also disagreed on the potential costs of decommissioning the site when the facility closes. Staff, and some on the commission, want to set a high bond amount to cover the expenses. But sPower wants to include values of recycling the solar panels, which would lower the overall cleanup costs.
Those issues will be addressed by staff and the commission at the next meeting.