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As public hearing looms, questions remain about Spotsylvania solar farm proposal

As public hearing looms, questions remain about Spotsylvania solar farm proposal

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A proposed 500-megawatt power facility that would pepper a 10-square-mile rural area in western Spotsylvania County with 1.8 million solar panels is the largest such proposal in the country.

The proposed solar facility also is a big deal for the county and its residents. 

Since the facility was proposed in January, it has consumed more and more time of state and county officials, residents and representatives of Utah-based Sustainable Energy, which filed for the special-use permit to build the solar farm.

In the intervening months, nearby residents have been asking questions and raising concerns about the project, all of which will begin to come to a head Wednesday at a public hearing before the Planning Commission.

Actually, the proposal is so complex two public hearings had to be scheduled. Wednesday’s hearing will focus on the largest of three special-use proposals on the site, a 5,200-acre tract. A second hearing on Dec. 19 will cover the other two permits.

Planning Director Wanda Parrish told the Board of Supervisors during a work session last week that the proposal is complex and evolving.

“This project has been very public,” she said.

But, she added: “This is the beginning of the public process.”

The proposal is the largest special-use permit the county has ever handled, Director of Utilities Ben Loveday told the supervisors during the work session. He said the permit for BJ’s Warehouse was previously the biggest, with 26 requirements.

Parrish gave supervisors packets with information on the project compiled by county staff and a consultant hired to study certain aspects of the proposal. She and other staff members also presented an overview and answered questions.

The county staff compiled a report for the public hearing, which it posted online Thursday. It recommends that the commission delay a vote to give sPower a chance to adjust its plan to meet recommendations made by county staff.

The proposed solar site comes during a boom in industrial size solar facilities, sparked primarily by federal and state tax exemptions that have brought costs down drastically. That expansion has reached the East Coast, led by North Carolina, where an explosion in solar facility construction is underway.

With more than 150 current and future wind and solar energy projects, Sustainable Power, better known as sPower, is a major player in the  industry. It describes itself as one of the largest producers of renewable energy in the United States.

The Spotsylvania location appeals to sPower because it is close to a hookup site to the main electrical grid. According to Daniel Menahem, senior manager of project development for sPower, the company also chose Virginia because most of the internet uses fiber optic cables running through Ashland.

The company has already struck deals to sell the solar power it generates in Spotsylvania to major corporations Apple and Microsoft, along with the University of Richmond. None of the electricity would be used in the county.

The application first goes to the Planning Commission, which issues recommendations and sends applications to the Board of Supervisors to approve or deny. Supervisors will also hold a public hearing and eventually vote on whether to allow the project. That is expected to happen sometime before the end of March.

Eight months have passed since sPower submitted its proposal to the county. Since then, its plan has gained approval from the State Corporation Commission, but many questions also have been raised about the impact to residents and the county.

Some questions have been answered. But plenty of issues remain, and those will be covered during the public hearing.

Many critics of the proposal don't trust sPower and suggest the project is a money grab. At least two groups of residents near the site have formed to address concerns with the project.

One, Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania, was created by residents of the gated Fawn Lake subdivision and has produced a plethora of information, which county officials and sPower have used in the process.

Charlie Payne, a local attorney representing sPower, said the company has good intentions and wants to be a beneficial addition to the county.

Here is a look at key issues that have dominated the discussion so far:

Water usage

Initial concerns revolved around impacts on the groundwater in the area of the site, but sPower has changed its plans. The company lowered the amount it plans to use to 100,000 gallons a day during construction and 350 gallons a day during operation.

Also, sPower decided against using groundwater and said it will connect to the county water system.

The company has offered to pay half of a $7 million project to improve the water system in the area. The nearest hookup is in Fawn Lake, where residents say sPower is attempting to buy vacant lots. 

The company plans to install a pair of 25,000-gallon water tanks on site.

The county staff report says developers of projects are required to pay for any necessary upgrades to municipal systems.

Supervisor Paul Trampe asked during last week’s work session if water usage can be controlled at the site and staff told him yes, adding that time and volume restrictions also would be set.

Environmental impact

According to the county staff report, sPower’s plan meets or exceeds minimum code requirements on various environmental impacts, including such things as silt fencing and other barriers, seeding and on-site responses to environmental issues.

Loveday, the utilities director, told supervisors that sPower’s plan is more comprehensive and extensive than typical special-use permit submissions. He added that county staff and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality have worked with company officials and said both state and county officials would oversee the project during construction and operation.

But residents have raised concerns about stormwater runoff and erosion.

There was a real-world example of what can happen in February at the 200-acre, 20-megawatt Essex Solar Center off U.S. 17 in Essex County when sediment runoff turned water into a muddy mix and washed into the Rappahannock River.

According to news reports, the facility owner, California-based Coronal Energy, blamed heavy rain for the problems. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality cited the company and ordered it to fix the problems.

In its most recent written responses to county and resident questions, sPower said it has “made significant and costly modifications to our grading plan, reducing the amount of grading and earthwork than what was previously proposed. Also, the project will be phased with only 400 acres open and active at any one time in any one watershed.”

The company added that it has agreed to “go above and beyond” county and state environmental requirements, including stormwater, erosion and wetland impacts.

During the work session, Supervisor Gary Skinner said he was concerned about potential environmental damage and asked if sPower or the county would have staff on the site around the clock in case any issues emerged. He was told that isn't likely, but County Fire Chief Jay Cullinan said he wants video surveillance on site.

Toxic chemicals

Residents have raised concerns over sPower’s plan to use solar panels that contain cadmium telluride.

Cadmium by itself is a known carcinogen, but its full health impacts are unknown and still being studied. The metal is used in batteries and plastics, among its many uses. Yet cadmium also is found naturally in soil, water and even food.

SPower presented the county with studies and maintains that cadmium telluride, a crystalline made from cadmium and tellurium, is not the same as cadmium and that the panels are safe. The studies found that the cadmium telluride in the panels is not water soluble and cannot drift as dust.

The studies on cadmium telluride included various other conclusions.

In one case, a study equated the potential impact from the chemical in the panels to agricultural fertilizer. In another, the study found that using solar panels would result in a decrease of cadmium released into the atmosphere through coal-fired power plants.

Yet another study indicated that the panels pass federal standards that would allow the panels to be disposed of in landfills, which would address what is a major issue in the solar facility industry—disposal of materials.

Dewberry Engineers Inc., the consultant hired to analyzed parts of the proposal, agreed. But the consultant added that cadmium telluride still could have negative impacts if people come into contact with it or ingest certain amounts. Dewberry, however, considered the risks and impacts negligible.

Residents still have raised concerns that severe weather could damage the panels and allow the cadmium telluride to leach into the soil or water.

The company said the panels are designed to withstand severe weather and that "our real-time monitoring systems will allow us to identify and replace damaged panels instantly.”

Financial risk to county

Another key concern for residents and county officials is what happens if the project fails or when it closes?

In its written responses to the county, sPower said that after 35 years, it would determine whether to keep the facility open and seek a contract renewal. If the county “wishes the property to return to (its) original land use, reversion back to timberland will take the same amount of time as after a clear-cut under current use."

Part of sPower’s proposal includes a decommissioning plan, which covers what happens to the land and equipment after the facility closes. That plan includes bonds that would pay for the costs of site cleanup and restoration.

Critics have said sPower overvalues the amount the panels would be worth for recycling, which could leave the county and taxpayers on the hook for the costs.

SPower said in its written responses to the county that it has plenty of experience with solar projects and how to estimate future value of the materials. Also, the company noted, the decommissioning plan will be re-evaluated throughout the life of the project.

County staff recommended the county get more details on such things as how the materials would be handled, stored and removed when the facility closes and how the soil would be restored. The staff also recommended that the county require a bond amount that reflects the actual cost of decommissioning, with recycling revenue included.

Another point made by staff was that sPower should make it clear which company is responsible for the project. The special-use permit includes five LLCs as part of the phased and sectioned project, all of which is “wholly owned subsidiaries of sPower,” according to the company.

That was one of several issues raised by Skinner. He asked county staff at last week’s work session how many limited liability corporations are tied to sPower and who would be responsible should the project fail or any other problems crop up. Critics of the project have raised the same questions.

Parrish, the planning director, acknowledged that is an issue.

“It is a concern and we are working on that,” she said.

Benefit to the county

Critics of the proposal have asked officials what good the project would bring to the county.

SPower has offered various perks, such as installing solar panels on county buildings and officials say the project will create jobs and bring in revenue to Spotsylvania.

The solar facility would receive real estate tax exemptions from the state, which would allow the county to tax only 20 percent of the assessed value of the property. SPower has offered to pay $600,000 annually, but there are legal issues with how to do that.

Some critics have said even the $600,000-a-year offer pales in comparison with the taxes the county should be able to collect as inflation drives property values higher over the next three decades.

According to the staff report, in a written response to questions from the county and citizens regarding tax revenues, sPower said the project would generate a total of $10 million during the 35 years, as opposed to the estimated $700,000 under the property's current tax assessment. 

The Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County group has provided information it says proves the project will not be beneficial to the county. One of its members, Fawn Lake resident Sean Fogarty, recently gave supervisors a list of concerns that included negative impacts to tax revenue and home values.

“The Fawn Lake developer has already stated their intentions to sell at least 74 of their residential lots to sPower, which would result in a loss of approximately $276,000 in anticipated county real estate tax revenue per year,” he wrote. “Additionally it is anticipated that homes bordering the project will suffer a drop in assessed value resulting in a reduction in real estate tax revenue from those homes.”

Fogarty also reviewed the county’s comprehensive plan and included in his list the ways in which the proposal fails to comply with the county’s long-range planning document. The retired U.S. Navy officer, who has a marine engineering degree and experience as a federal budget consultant, wrote that the proposal runs contrary to the comp plan’s stipulation that projects conform to agricultural zoning and nature of an area, future use plans and impacts to the public water system.

The proposal, he wrote, “would remove the largest agricultural and forestall land-use tract in the county,” running counter to preserving the rural and historical character of the area, as called for in the plan.

Environmental impacts also made the list, with Fogarty citing concerns over increased temperatures caused by the panels, which could “impact the streams and wetlands on the site and beyond.”

SPower has countered that the heat island effect is minimal and contained to the solar sites.

County staff concluded that the project would result in more tax revenue and “would likely be one of the top 10 principal property taxpayers in the County when construction is complete."

Staff also noted that an analysis by Magnum Economics, hired by sPower, indicates the project would result in “$110 million in economic output” during construction and $4.7 million while the plant is operating.

“While the county is expected to see positive economic activity resulting from the project, those projected economic impacts would further extend beyond the County boundary to the region and the Commonwealth,” the staff report said.

Payne wrote in an email that sPower apologizes to residents who think the company has ignored their concerns, adding that it has been working hard to address all issues raised.  

"SPower has diligently analyzed and reviewed all reasonable concerns and [has] worked with county staff to address the same," he wrote. "This process just takes a lot of time, especially with a project of this size and complexity."

He added that some of the concerns, while perhaps raised with good intentions, have caused confusion because they "are on the extreme end of remote possibilities and without scientific or professional engineering support."

The project is under heavy scrutiny by various governmental agencies, he noted. 

The company, he added, wants to "ensure the public that this project will be safe, reliable and an asset to the county."

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

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