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Debate over solar farm heats up in Spotsylvania

Debate over solar farm heats up in Spotsylvania

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Environmental and health impacts topped the list of concerns by residents who spoke Wednesday during two public hearings about a proposed massive solar-energy plant in rural western Spotsylvania County.

The hearings, focused on the proposed 500-megawatt solar power generating facility that would run on nearly 2 million solar panels erected on land stretching 10 square miles, were held before the State Corporation Commission in Spotsylvania in the afternoon and evening.

Utah-based Sustainable Power Group LLC, of sPower, has proposed building the facility on more than 6,000 acres off West Catharpin Road.

In order for the facility to become a reality, the county must approve special permits and the SCC has to approve a certificate of convenience and necessity.

Earlier Wednesday, members of the Spotsylvania Planning Commission toured Dominion Energy’s 250-acre, 20-megawatt Whitehouse Solar Site in Louisa County. Also, county officials, residents and sPower officials visited the Spotsylvania property of the proposed facility and surrounding land.

The meeting room was packed as nearly two dozen people spoke during the 2 p.m. hearing.

Many of the speakers live in Fawn Lake, where residents formed a group to address issues with the solar site. They addressed those issues—primarily impacts on wetlands and streams, excess water runoff and underground aquifers as well as toxic chemicals in the solar panels—during the meeting.

“There is no convenience or necessity,” said Alfred King, a Fawn Lake resident. “The county is getting nothing out of this gigantic project” aside from some tax revenue and a few jobs.

King said the project isn’t worth the risks.

Other residents concerned with the project or against it cited backgrounds in physics, chemistry, medicine and environmental sciences. They said there simply were too many unanswered questions about the massive project, the likes of which hasn’t been seen elsewhere.

Other similar size solar facilities are in unpopulated desert-like environments, the speakers said, meaning there was little impact on the environment or people.

Several residents raised concerns about research indicating that solar fields could increase temperatures in the surrounding area. They also talked about the potential of cancer-causing agents leaching into the soil, should the panels break.

Scott King, a Spotsylvania resident who has been a geospatial scientist for three decades, produced a report on the proposed facility’s impact on the aquifer and the property and around it.

He told the SCC officials on Tuesday that the plant’s water use (mostly to clean the solar panels) would deplete the aquifer and cause a raft of problems, including for residents relying on well water. Fawn Lake’s water supply comes via the county system, but nearby Lake Wilderness and other nearby residents rely on well water.

King said there are things sPower can do to avoid impacting the water table, such as building a bio-swale, which he described as a trench that collects water and stores it underground. That water could be used to clean the panels, he said.

Runoff was a major issue for some residents concerned with impacts on wetlands and streams running through the property, which is currently owned by a timber company that is clear-cutting much of the forested land.

“All of the issues are solvable,” Garret Bean, vice president of development for sPower, said after the afternoon meeting. He said the issues raised at the meeting, as well as by county staff and SCC officials, will be addressed in the second part of a company white paper on the project. He said it should be available in a few weeks.

In the first section of the white paper, sPower said the project is still in the design phase and that photovoltaic solar panels would be erected on three sections, comprising 3,500 acres of the property. The company plans to use existing and replanted trees, berms and other buffers to keep the facility out of sight of neighboring properties.

The company’s report says the chemical in the panels (cadmium telluride) is insoluble and that it has different chemical elements than the carcinogen cadmium, so there shouldn’t be a concern. The panels are built to withstand 130 mph winds and there are only rare cases of breakage, according to the white paper.

Regardless of what company officials have said so far, residents asked the SCC for assurances that accurate, scientific information be gathered before anything is permitted.

They pointed out the potential ramifications of building such a facility, which could negatively impact the land, watershed and some 7,000 people living in the area.

The project is on a “massive scale,” Spotsylvania resident David Hammond told the SCC officials Tuesday. “It’s 400 percent larger than any such facility east of the Mississippi.”

A “number of critically important questions” remain to be answered, he said.

Those who support the project said they like the idea of renewable energy and that the solar plant would be better than having another large subdivision developed.

This story was updated to correct Alfred King's name.

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