Hundreds pack into contentious Spotsylvania meeting on solar project; supervisors delay decision

By: - February 27, 2019 2:27 pm

Opponents and supporters (but mostly opponents) packed into a marathon meeting of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors in February on a proposed solar project that would be the biggest in the eastern U.S. if approved. (Sarah Vogelsong/ For the Virginia Mercury)

After a marathon nine-hour meeting at which more than 100 people spoke, the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors delayed a decision on whether a massive solar facility will be built in the western part of the county.

Just before 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board voted to continue its discussion of all three sites involved in the project until its next meeting, scheduled for March 12. Questions from supervisors about whether they would be able to continue deliberations through their second March meeting indicate that even after more than a year of development, the project still faces an uncertain fate.

As the hearings drew to a close, Ryan Creamer, CEO of sPower, the solar developer and operator behind the plans, expressed surprise at the level of scrutiny and interest the solar project, generally seen as a passive land use, was receiving.

“I’ve never seen this before,” he said.

Of the hundreds who filled Spotsylvania High School’s 1,300-capacity auditorium for the hearings Tuesday night, the majority openly opposed sPower’s plans, a stance signaled by their red shirts and sweaters. While supporters of the project, clad in green shirts supplied by sPower and emblazoned with the slogan “Spotsylvania for Solar,” were also present, they were outnumbered.

According to a count by an sPower spokesperson, of the 93 people who spoke in the first public hearing, 69 were against the project and 24 in favor.

sPower’s proposal for the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center has attracted statewide attention for its scale and the solar capacity it would add to the state’s portfolio. With the ability to produce 500 megawatts of energy, the facility would be the largest east of the Rocky Mountains and would almost double the amount of solar energy Virginia is currently producing.

Opponents of the proposed sPower solar project in Spotsylvania County decorated outside a meeting of the county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday at Spotsylvania High School.

All 500 of those megawatts have already been committed to private companies, with the largest portion of them going to Microsoft to power its data center in Mecklenburg.

The Utah-based company has already received certificates of public convenience and necessity for the project from the Virginia State Corporation Commission but must receive special use permits from the Board of Supervisors for all three sites on which it plans to build the facility.

Opposition at the local level has largely stemmed from the gated Fawn Lake community that sits directly adjacent to the more than 6,000 acres that sPower plans to transform into a 1.8 million–panel solar farm. More than two-thirds of the land has been actively logged by Riveroak Timberland for several decades, and the company has explicitly stated that it intends to sell its holdings and will not continue logging them — a point raised by many speakers Tuesday who support the project.

“These acres will be sold. They’re going to be developed,” said Elizabeth Granger before arguing that the solar facility would be preferable to a residential or other industrial development.

Despite an agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting that contained 5,920 pages of documentation related to the sPower project, the opposition insisted that questions remain about nearly every facet of the project, from its effects on erosion, human health and safety to its viability and the impact it will have on property values.

“This project, as planned, is much too close,” said Spotsylvania resident Pamela Rizzo, while Vivian Stanley, who said she represented “We the People,” characterized it as a “solar monster” that was a threat to the “lives and welfare” of the people of the Livingston district, where the facility would be located.

“How much poison does it take to cause cancer?” she asked the supervisors in the first of several impassioned speeches, alluding to sPower’s plans to use cadmium telluride panels for about 30 percent of its installation. The opposition has claimed that cadmium telluride poses a threat to human health if it leaches into water sources. sPower has stated that there is no scientific basis for these claims.

A white paper prepared by the company pointed out that the cadmium telluride will not dissolve into groundwater in the event of breakage or melt in the unlikely event of a fire.

Even if the panels were pulverized, sPower says, any risk to the environment is minimized because of how difficult it is to leach the cadmium out of the panels. The company notes that “aggressive extraction” is required to leach cadmium during recycling, which involves “crushing the panels into millimeter-scale pieces and agitating it in sulfuric acid or similar acidic solution,” a process that “in no way” mimics “the actual environment or broken or cracked panels at solar energy facilities.”

Emotions were high throughout the night, peaking during a speech by state Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, who represents the 17th District where the solar facility would be located. During this year’s General Assembly session, Reeves sponsored a law mandating that localities require decommissioning plans for any solar development. (sPower’s application includes a lengthy decommissioning plan and bonds.)

After a lengthy recounting of the passage of the law through the General Assembly, Reeves was cut off at the three-minute time limit by the board, sparking an angry outburst from the crowd until he was given an extra two minutes.

“The right thing to do is blatantly clear tonight,” he said. When asked by the board to clarify whether he supported the project, he said, “Not at this time.”

Still, not everyone was against the plan. Many supporters, including Conservatives for Clean Energy Virginia Executive Director Chris West, cited the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center as a key part of the effort to reduce the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.

“Renewable energy such as solar power is the future of energy production in the commonwealth of Virginia,” said West.

The sentiment was echoed by Kalea Wilson, a student at Riverbend High School: “We cannot keep pretending someone somewhere will make a change,” he said.

At the end of the night, the six visibly exhausted supervisors who were present voted unanimously to table the issue until concerns could be cataloged more thoroughly.

Reflecting on the conflicting claims by citizens and the applicants, Supervisor David Ross declared, “We have to have someone who can adjudicate” the disputed information.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.