In a marathon public hearing that ran into the early morning hours Wednesday, red-clad opposition forces of a massive solar farm proposed in western Spotsylvania County outnumbered green-geared solar proponents, but the winner remains undetermined.
The Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors left the public hearing on the special-use permits for a proposed 500-megawatt solar power facility on a 6,300-acre site with a mountain of testimony and information, and probably a lot of questions.
The nearly nine hours of testimony ran the gamut of practical and scientific to profane accusations and what some called flat-out lies.
The crowd filled more than half of Spotsylvania High School’s auditorium. Those who showed up were greeted by solar proponents wearing green shirts and dishing out pizza and opponents wearing red shirts and passing out anti-project stickers.
The hearing drew more than 100 speakers, some of whom spoke several times. They ranged in age from teenagers to grandparents.
State Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, was one of those speakers. When the three-minute time limit for individuals was up, Reeves demanded more time to speak, for his constituents, he said to cheers. He got the extra two minutes allowed to speakers representing groups.
Reeves accused solar interests of gobbling up profits while enjoying tax breaks and told the crowd and supervisors he did not support the project.
He was among several opponents who targeted Sustainable Power Group’s credibility and intentions, along with other residents whose comments varied from well-organized, sincere and insightful to confusing, irate and political.
The first speaker—like many in the crowd, a resident of Fawn Lake, a neighborhood that borders a small portion of the site—connected the proposal to the “New Green Deal” and Washington politics. Yet, he and others also pointed out their primary concerns about the project: that it’s too big, too close to homes and there are too many unknown risks.
The Utah-based company, primarily through local attorney Charlie Payne, defended sPower’s background and said it has worked with officials in a rigorous approval process, which included hearings with the State Corporation Commission, the county Planning Commission and now the supervisors.
Payne, who repeatedly told supervisors “misinformation” was being spread, described the project and produced documents he said are backed by experts in such fields as solar, environmental, financial and housing.
The president and CEO of sPower, Ryan Creamer, spoke at the end of the hearing, after midnight had long passed and most of the crowd was gone.
He said safety is the company’s top priority and that all of the more than 150 solar and wind facilities sPower operates are strictly monitored. He also said the company has never decommissioned a facility, some of which operate near homes and schools.
Creamer also responded to issues raised about the numerous limited liability corporations involved in the project, which some think is dubious and a way for companies to bale out on projects without any culpability.
“We are not shell companies,” he said, adding that the Spotsylvania facility, like all others the company owns, are assets they want to work and that sPower has long-term contracts to sell its solar power. The company already has agreements to sell power from the Spotsylvania site to Microsoft, Apple and the University of Richmond.
A Microsoft official spoke at the meeting, saying the solar facility is key to the tech giant’s work, which requires a lot of electricity.
The proposal would use 1.8 million solar panels on three parcels of a more than 6,300-acre property used for years for timber farming. The solar panels and other equipment would cover about half of the property, while more than 2,000 acres would be conserved. The project would impact wetlands and endangered mussels.
The company chose the spot because of its proximity to the primary power grid. Payne called it the Interstate 95 of the electrical grid.
The facility would measure up with the largest so-called “solar farms” in the United States and be the biggest on the East Coast. While solar facilities exist in a variety of areas across the world (including around homes, schools and businesses) most of the large solar facilities are in isolated, desert areas.
Opponents say the Spotsylvania site is too close to homes. They say it would pose unknown risks to the ecosystem, in solar panels containing carcinogen cadmium telluride, from increased heat around the panels, by lowering property values in the area to the point that it would have a negative impact on county tax revenue. They say the project violates the county’s Comprehensive Plan and requirements for special-use permits.
Supporters said the project would help cut the reliance on environment-damaging fossil fuels, and the site would go mostly unnoticed because it is in the middle of several tracts of vacant land and a small number of residences would be impacted.
The company says the project complies with regulations and agrees with most of the county restrictions, including strict and voluminous stipulations suggested by the Planning Commission.
But Payne told the supervisors the total bond figure the commission recommended, to cover decommissioning costs, is exorbitant and unnecessary. He added that the 350-foot setbacks from home properties also is too much and would impact the project.
While the company takes issue with the bond expectations, Payne said sPower is happy to abide by stipulations in Reeve’s bill, which the senator said are meant to hold companies responsible.
Reeves told the crowd the bill was “sitting on the governor’s desk.”
The supervisors, who mostly listened to the speakers without comment, will digest information on the project and take up the issue at their next meeting, March 12. It is unclear if any vote will be taken at that time.