PHOTO: solar panels (copy)

The solar facility Sustainable Power wants to build in Spotsylvania would have about 1.8 million panels.

The Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors has begun to publicly tackle the complex and controversial solar facility proposal that has been a hot topic for more than a year.

The solar proposal dominated most of Tuesday night’s meeting, pushing it into the early morning hours of Wednesday. The supervisors were unable to cover all of the details and issues of the proposed 500-megawatt solar facility and will again take up the proposal at their March 19 meeting.

Sustainable Power Group, also known as sPower, wants to install approximately 1.8 million solar panels on several tracts covering more than half of the 6,300-acre property, which has been timberland for years. The company filed for three special-use permits in late 2017 and those permits are still under review by the supervisors.

The company has agreements to sell the electricity it generates to high-tech companies Apple and Microsoft, as well as the University of Richmond.

Residents who live around the proposed site in the Wilderness area of western Spotsylvania have aggressively opposed the project, saying it is too big, includes too many unknown risks and would bring no benefits to the county.

The company has, in turn, aggressively countered residents with experts who deem the project safe and beneficial to the county.

The county’s Planning Department recommended that supervisors approve the project, but with many strict conditions. The Spotsylvania Planning Commission recommended supervisors deny the special-use permits for the two bigger parcels and approve a permit only for the smallest site.

While it appears the supervisors have much more work to do on the proposal, many of the key issues were covered Tuesday.

Solar panels containing cadmium telluride was one of those topics that grabbed the supervisors’ attention. The company wants to fill part of the site with panels containing the chemical. Residents claim it posses health risks, but an expert for the company said the panels are safe.

Supervisor David Ross proposed that the board follow the Planning Commission’s recommendation to ban use of cadmium telluride panels, but the supervisors decided not to make any changes at the meeting.

The county consultant, a civil engineer with a background that includes working on solar projects, said there are no documented cases of cadmium telluride panels contaminating sites, including those where serious storms caused damage.

The consultant said “a lot of misinformation” about cadmium telluride in relation to the proposal. He said a case of leaching reported by the Concerned Citizens group—formed mostly by Fawn Lake residents who oppose the project—could not have happened because cadmium telluride is not water soluble.

Vasilis M. Fthenakis, an expert hired by sPower who has worked in the solar field for more than 30 years, said the technology has been studied and tested and is safe.

“Everywhere in the world has determined cadmium telluride safe,” he said, rattling off such countries as Germany, Japan and China.

The panels have been tested and are extremely hard to break, Fthenakis said. He pointed to a 2015 tornado that damaged a solar facility in California and said “absolutely no contamination” was found.

Ross asked David Hammond, a vocal Fawn Lake resident and part of the Concerned Citizens group, to talk about what he has learned about the panels with cadmium telluride. Hammond has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in chemical engineering. He worked for ExxonMobile, the world’s biggest oil and gas company, before retiring.

“There are no studies out there,” he said, adding that he isn’t convinced cadmium telluride is encapsulated in the panels and won’t leach out. “It’s a claim.”

He also said he could find no investigation into the tornado event and the impact.

Fthenakis reiterated his credentials in the solar field and said Hammond is not an expert but has only been “Googling” the topic for the past year.

Supervisor Chris Yakabouski, who said trusted information has been hard to come by regarding the proposal, asked for a report on the California tornado’s impact.

Supervisors also talked about the so-called “heat island” effect, in which solar facilities cause temperatures in the surrounding environment to rise.

Fthenakis and University of Arizona professor Greg Barron–Gafford testified that the facility would not result in any noticeable increase in temperature.

The county’s consultant has determined there would be no heat island effect but that the facility could cause a minimal increase in temperature. But he said such places as shopping center parking lots create more heat.

Another hot topic has been a contention by some residents that sPower plans to purchase lots or property in Fawn Lake, possibly to improve the water line to the area. The company has agreed to pay $3.5 million to upgrade the system, which would improve Fawn Lake water pressure.

Charlie Payne, a local attorney representing sPower, told the supervisors the company has no intention of buying any property in Fawn Lake.

Much of the latter portion of the session focused on the potential economic impact of the facility.

Payne told the supervisors that the Virginia State Corporation Commission determined the project would be a benefit when it approved it. He noted that the Virginia Chamber of Commerce has endorsed project, and that California’s Lancaster County has reported a dramatic increase in tax revenue since sPower built facilities there.

The company says the project would produce $21 million in new tax revenue and $25 million more in additional funds for the county over the 35-year life of the facility. He said the property under its current use would generate less than $1 million in tax revenue.

A. Fletcher Mangum of Mangum Economics in Richmond produced the fiscal impact study for sPower. He said in addition to the revenue Payne cited, the project would create 843 jobs during construction and 34 permanent jobs during its operation, which would pump more money into the local economy.

Payne said the company also has committed to providing 10 megawatts of electricity to the county schools through its technology, which he said would add up to $75 million in savings.

Planning Director Wanda Parrish told the board her staff had not verified sPower’s claims about economic benefits, but had verified the methodology used for the fiscal analysis with the State Corporation Commission.

Property values also were part of the discussion, with sPower’s expert, licensed appraiser Chris Kaila of Spotsylvania, telling the supervisors his research determined there would be no negative impact to property values. He said claims by some Realtors that the proposal has already scared off potential buyers are not based on scientific analysis. Payne added that values of homes in Fawn Lake have increased since the project was announced.

Kaila also noted that he asked the Concerned Citizens group for proof of its claims that property values would drop and that “none of it panned out.”

Supervisor Greg Benton, whose district includes the proposed solar site, noted that some of the information given to him by Fawn Lake residents is “not factual” and that he thinks they have hurt their cause by publicizing it.

The citizens group brought its own expert, Dean Belis of Urban Analytics, to rebut sPower’s economic experts. While he did not dispute the sPower findings, he produced a report indicating there could be better uses of the property that would bring in more tax revenue.

He noted that the tax revenue generated by the solar facility would drop steadily over the life of the project, and that “doesn’t make sense” for the county. Other uses, he said, would increase in value.

His report didn’t seem to go over well with Benton or fellow supervisor Kevin Marshall, who criticized his findings.

The board must vote on the proposal by April 23.

This story was updated to correct information about what Parrish's staff verified and sPower's projections for total new tax revenue and additional funds its facility would generate for the county.

Get our daily Headlines Newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436