A massive proposed solar development on this timberland property in Spotylsvania County has drawn major opposition from locals. (Sarah Vogelsong/ For the Virginia Mercury)

By Richard Eggeling and Bill Johnson 

The Rappahannock Group of the Sierra Club has taken awhile in arriving at our position on sPower’s proposed Spotsylvania solar farm because we wanted to complete our own analysis of the issues.

On the one hand, it is critical that we stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to slow down global warming. On the other hand, the destruction of natural habitats, potential pollution of streams and waterways, potential increased fire hazard, etc., are valid concerns. When considering all these variables, RGSC strongly supports the solar farm for the following reasons.

The proposed site has been continuously logged for many years, an industrial activity that has already resulted in the degradation of wildlife habitat, sediment runoff into streams and rivers and increased chances of large-scale fires. These are the very objections opponents raised about the solar farm, with this exception — timbering is a continuous industrial activity, while the solar panel installation is one-time. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will monitor implementation to ensure that all regulations are followed.

Many of the opponents’ claims ring hollow. The roads around the site are continuously used by heavy logging trucks. So why are these same roads an issue when one-time, solar farm construction is involved? Chainsaws and noisy heavy equipment are regularly used during timbering season, so why are vibratory drivers used only during solar farm construction a concern? They produce half the noise when no closer than 175 yards from any home.

Wildfires during droughts are fueled by undergrowth and timber debris, like woodchips, stumps, unusable logs and branches. Solar panels are made from inflammable materials, with electrical current overload and short-circuit protection, built within a controlled and carefully managed landscape. Why would anyone consider that a greater fire hazard?

The use of biosolids to encourage faster forest regrowth, sometimes used for timber operations, results in spreading all sorts of toxic ingredients into the environment, including household chemicals and drugs. That is significantly worse for the environment and the people living nearby than the threat that cadmium telluride will pollute the land and groundwater. There has been no evidence of this happening in 20 years of such solar panel installations, including sites hit by hurricanes and tornadoes.

Opponents claim that the economic impact will result in the county losing millions of dollars in tax revenue and homes nearby losing value. It is pure conjecture to say that taxes would go down, based on “what if” speculation about possible land uses. Further, the county will have significantly lower future expenses without having to pay for new schools, roads and other infrastructure projects that would be required if a housing development was built.

In fact, the county will see an immediate, predictable long-term increase in revenue, and the residents of Fawn Lake will see improved housing values, as sPower pays half the cost of replacing obsolete water lines. A housing development would make permanent any wildlife habitat loss and increase environmental damage.

Decommissioning worries seem to be a major concern, but they don’t reflect reality. sPower is buying the land, not leasing it. Why would any for-profit company invest in the land, build a solar farm, and then walk away from it? They would not; instead, they would continually upgrade the site and keep it functioning into perpetuity, to keep profits coming.

Instead of wearing red or green to clearly separate sides, each should raise legitimate issues, work through them, and arrive at an acceptable compromise. It doesn’t take long to realize that no matter how many issues are raised, some people will continuously advance new issues that can never be satisfied. As a community, state, and nation, we all should be aware by now that renewable energy offers the cleanest and least expensive source for power generation. We must try to understand the mechanics of these systems and not be afraid of something new.

The long-term repercussions if we fail to deploy them are onerous, as is shown by the fourth annual National Climate Assessment report, issued by 13 U.S. government agencies. We need to do this for our children and grandchildren to mitigate the harm we have already caused by releasing far too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Richard Eggeling is the Rappahannock Group Sierra Club outings co-chair and a Spotsylvania County resident. Bill Johnson is the Rappahannock Group Sierra Club vice chair and conservation chair.