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Virginia residents protest proposed solar farm in Spotsylvania

December 11, 2018

A group of Northern Virginia residents is protesting the proposed construction of a large solar farm in their rural community, saying the project is more dangerous to the environment and surrounding towns than beneficial.

The project is proposed by Utah-based Sustainable Power Group, known as sPower, and would be the fifth largest solar field in the U.S. and the largest on the East Coast. It would cover more than 8 square miles and provide 500 megawatts (mw) of solar power.

Its proposed location, Spotsylvania County, is known for its agriculture and Civil War history, and is home to more than 130,000 residents.

If approved, the solar farm would be a key step in the state achieving its goal of producing 3,000 mw of solar power by 2022.

“We’re not against solar,” said Kevin McCarthy, an organizer of a grass-roots activity against the solar plant. “There’s nothing like this anywhere near any residence anywhere in the country.”

Vast fields of solar panels increasingly are finding homes on the East Coast. While the four biggest solar fields are in California and Nevada, North Carolina is the second largest provider of solar-based electricity, with almost 4,500 mw accounting for 4.6 percent of the state’s total electric output, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

In comparison, California produces almost 23,000 mw that accounts for 16.8 percent of the state’s electricity output.

“It’s one of the fastest growing energy generating resources on the entire East Coast,” said Charlie Payne, the Virginia attorney representing sPower in its push for approval from the county. “We feel very comfortable that the project will be viable and very efficient.”

sPower is proposing three solar fields in rural Virginia, the largest of which would cover 5,200 acres in Spotsylvania County on land designated for agricultural use.

The northeastern corner of the proposed area, about two miles wide, abuts the village of Fawn Lake, a waterfront retirement community and golf course resort that boasts its Arnold Palmer design.

“We live in a historic, pristine beautiful area, and the comprehensive plan of the county calls for this to remain so,” Mr. McCarthy said. “But we’re going to take 10 square miles of trees and cut ’em all down and put up a power plant.”

The area is attractive for sPower because of the large area of undeveloped land, the extensive use of fiber-optic cable throughout the area and the ability to connect to a nearby electrical substation. The company said it already has secured deals to supply power to Microsoft, Apple and the University of Richmond.

“This type of facility has attracted the two most valuable publicly traded companies in the world to Spotsylvania County,” said Mr. Payne, the attorney for sPower. “That, in and of itself, is a great marketing tool, great marketing opportunity to economic development.”

The Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors has set a Jan. 2 deadline for a final vote on whether to allow sPower to proceed with construction.

The plans for the three sites have gone through several iterations to address concerns from the community over the eight months since the initial proposal.

Those concerns include erosion and sediment control, a fear realized in February when heavy rain caused a mudslide from a 200-acre solar farm in Essex County, Virginia suffocating the nearby creek and wetlands in sediment and further flowing into the Rappahannock River, a protected national wildlife refuge.

“We’re putting out all the issues and identifying all these potential issues,” Mr. McCarthy said.

SPower has modified its plans in light of community concerns, most drastically to shift from tapping into groundwater to instead accessing the municipal water line and committing $3.5 million to its improvement. At completion of construction, the company said it will switch to tank water it will install on its properties.

Ahead of a community planning meeting last week, sPower sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors offering a number of changes and incentives for the community.

Mr. Payne said it could be a $25 million investment, including building a new fire station, constructing a local park and donating solar arrays and panels valued at $1 million for the town’s own energy needs, estimating cost savings of around $30 million over the life of the project.

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