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

After months of deliberation, the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night approved a special use permit for the largest piece of a planned solar farm that, if built as proposed, would be the biggest on the East Coast.

The supervisors, who split 5-2 on the vote, with Chairman Paul Trampe and Courtland District Supervisor David Ross opposing, offered no comments on their decision at the meeting. Greg Benton, the supervisor who represents the Livingston district where the facility will be located, put forward the motion for approval.

While the board deferred its decision on the two remaining pieces of the proposal, known as Sites B and C, until Thursday, their Tuesday night vote signaled their overall embrace of the project, which has been fought tooth and nail by some residents of a neighboring gated community.

At 5,200 acres, the approved Site A constitutes more than 80 percent of the 6,350-acre expanse that the project’s developer and operator, Utah-based sPower, has planned for the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center.  Of that area, 3,500 acres will be disturbed, with the remainder serving as buffers, resource protection areas and wildlife corridors. It is also expected to generate 400 of the 500 megawatts that the facility will generate when fully operating.

“This really is going to be a marquee project, not only for Spotsylvania, but for an entire industry,” sPower CEO Ryan Creamer told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The sPower Spotsylvania solar project will be the largest solar farm on the East Coast. (Spotsylvania County special use permit application)

While the Spotsylvania facility will be by far the largest solar installation in Virginia — the current largest, Southampton Solar, has a generation capacity of 100 megawatts — the supervisors’ vote came on the heels of another Virginia locality’s approval of a major sPower project.

On March 26, the Charles City County Board of Supervisors voted 3–0 to approve a special use permit for sPower to construct a 340-megawatt solar facility called the Keydet Solar Project on 2,270 acres previously devoted to timber production.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I can say that I have been looking at that land for 70 years,” Charles City County Supervisor Gilbert Smith said at the March 26 meeting. He explained his vote in terms of the revenue the county would gain from the Keydet facility.

“Should we get a piece of the pie now while we have the opportunity, or should we let this one go by and get nothing?” he said. “If we do get something out of these, we can do better things for you, the citizens of Charles City County, to improve this county.”

Virginia currently has a solar capacity of about 656 megawatts, according to a December 2018 report by industry group Solar Energy Industries Association. The Spotsylvania and Charles City County approvals will more than double that portfolio. And the Augusta County Board of Supervisors meets tonight to consider a 1,000-acre, 125 megawatt solar project. A sweeping 2018 utility regulatory law declared 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar in the public interest .

The Charles City County project will still need to receive the stamp of approval from the State Corporation Commission before construction can begin. The Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center was granted its required certificate of public convenience and necessity in August 2018.

But while the Keydet project’s passage through the permitting process was mostly uneventful, the Spotsylvania facility sparked vehement protest from neighbors, largely from the wealthy, gated Fawn Lake subdivision that abuts the northeastern edge of Site A. Opponents quickly mobilized to form the Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake and Spotsylvania County, a moniker later changed to the Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County.

Their objections ran the gamut and were dismissed by sPower and environmental groups in most cases as unfounded or exaggerated. The group contended that such a large industrial use was not compatible with the surrounding residential properties; claimed that the solar panels would irreparably harm the environment and poison the water; argued that the facility would drive down property values and leave the county on the hook financially for cleaning up the site once its approximate 35-year term of use had come to an end.

According to a post in the Concerned Citizens’ closed Facebook group, it “incurred several thousand dollars in legal and expert reports during the board hearings and meetings in March” to oppose the project. The group filed its paperwork to become a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit this winter. Its website specifies that no one in the group is paid for their opposition work.

sPower disputed many of the Concerned Citizens’ claims in a white paper, as well as extensive documentation that it filed with the county regarding scientific studies of the impact of solar. An agenda packet for a Feb. 19 hearing on the project ran to almost 6,000 pages of material on every facet of the proposal.

When Spotsylvania’s Planning Commission reviewed the application in January, it recommended not only that the Board of Supervisors deny the proposal, but that any approval of the plan should be subject to a lengthy list of conditions.

Before the board’s vote Tuesday, a number of those conditions were revised or overturned. An earlier recommendation that the facility not be allowed to use cadmium telluride panels, for instance, was amended to restrict sPower’s usage of them to only 30 percent of the total installation, while a requirement that the company carpool 70 percent of its construction workers to the site was reduced to 20 percent. Additional changes concerned buffer width, the amount of debris that can be burned in trenches during construction and Sunday work restrictions, among others.

sPower has long included in its proposal a decommissioning plan and decommissioning bond but balked at an earlier condition that would have prevented it from taking advantage of credits for the resale and recycling of panels at the conclusion of the facility’s use. The Tuesday night revisions removed that prohibition.

A before and after visual simulation of the projects. (sPower presentation)

County Attorney Karl Holsten confirmed before the vote that sPower is “bound under the regulations of the special use permit” to repay any difference between the actual decommissioning costs and those guaranteed by a surety bond if the former exceed the latter.

Some of the revisions appeared to be in response to testimony and documentation filed over the past month. One rebuttal submitted by photovoltaic expert Vasilis Fthenakis sought to “correct the record” regarding public fears about a “heat island effect” from the solar facility and the use of cadmium telluride panels.

“My studies show that there is no heat island effect,” his statement says, concluding, “No so-called ‘temporary temperature increases’ would be felt by the neighborhoods adjacent to the Spotsylvania solar project.”

On the cadmium telluride issue, Fthenakis declared that contrary to public comments, “there are no unknowns” about the potential environmental and health hazards of panels made with these materials.

“There are more than 20,000 MW of [cadmium telluride photovoltaic] plants with more than 200 million panels operating world-wide and there has not been a single case of soil or water contamination; even in during tornadoes and hurricanes that have dislodged and damaged PV panels,” he wrote.

Speaking after the approval Tuesday night, sPower CEO Creamer acknowledged that “it maybe looked like there was a community divided” over the proposal but expressed the hope that “conscientious construction” would help bridge those divisions.

“It’s a large investment, and you’re going to see us out here for a long time,” he said.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the characterization of Mr. Creamer’s remarks. They occurred after the vote.