Within a couple of years, Spotsylvania County could be home to one of the largest solar energy facilities on the East Coast.
Utah-based Sustainable Power Group is proposing a 3,500-acre solar farm in western Spotsylvania as similar projects take shape in the Fredericksburg region. The site near Fawn Lake includes 29 tracts of mostly timberland off West Catharpin Road.
The company has not submitted its application for a special-use permit, but recently sent letters to nearby residents announcing an informational meeting 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Craigs Baptist Church at 14123 West Catharpin Road. Which many were in Attendance to sound off on concerns about it.
The company hopes to begin construction on the 500-megawatt “solar generating facility” in August and wrap up in late 2019, Sustainable Power Group Permitting Manager Adam Furman wrote in the letter dated Dec. 29.
The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors each must hold public hearings and take a vote on the proposal. Supervisors set the stage for the project late last year by unanimously passing an ordinance that allows solar facilities on certain agricultural property if developers obtain a special-use permit.
Officials with Sustainable Power Group, or sPower, did not immediately return calls for comment. The company describes itself as the largest private owner of solar facilities, with customers that include the Southern California Public Power Authority.
This past summer, AES Corp. and Alberta Investment Management Corp. purchased sPower for $1.6 billion.
“We built a highly profitable business that will drive skilled worker job creation, local economic activity, and reduced environmental damage,” Jeffrey Tannenbaum, the company’s board chairman, stated in a news release announcing the sale. “We achieved this in spite of many obstacles that appear when a new industry challenges the status quo.”
Dominion Energy has also developed solar projects in recent years, though none have been as large as the proposed facility in Spotsylvania.
Sustainable Power Group’s plan could face resistance from some homeowners in western Spotsylvania, a rural area near the Orange County line.
The Spotsylvania Hunt Club has leased much of the property from Riveroak Timberland Investments for the past two decades, and hunters have been using it for at least 60 years. Hunt Club President Paul Minter, who also lives near the site, said much of the land “looks like a desert” now that many of the oaks and other trees have been cut.
He said he opposes the plan, but thinks supervisors will support it because of the additional revenue the solar farm would generate.
“How you gonna stop big money?” he asked. “That’s big money.”
On the upside, he added: “It’s probably better than 4,000 homes going up there.”
It’s unclear exactly how much Sustainable Power Group would invest in the project, though the price tag will be substantial. The King George County Board of Supervisors last month voted in favor of a 610-acre solar farm near Hopyard Farm, with developer Community Energy expecting to invest $30 million on the project.
Culpeper County recently approved a solar farm, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was in Fauquier County in late October to install the last of 235,900 solar panels at a Remington facility.
And last week, McAuliffe attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a solar energy system atop a textile printing plant in Gordonsville. Those solar panels will power almost half of the plant’s energy use, according to a press release.
Output from solar facilities—which convert sunlight into electricity—increased nearly 47 percent from October 2016 through October of last year, according to a recent federal report. The U.S. Department of Energy’s website states that the industry’s growth is paving the way to a “cleaner, more sustainable energy future,” noting that the cost of the technology has dropped significantly in recent years.
Spotsylvania resident James Leigh, who lives near the proposed solar facility, said he’s worried the project will be an eyesore, hurting property values. He said he hopes the company keeps some of the property’s evergreen trees, which could act as a buffer between the solar panels and homes.
“I’m not against green initiatives, solar, wind and everything else,” he said. “But you’ve got to take care of the folks that live around it.”
Supervisor Greg Benton, whose Livingston District includes the site, said company officials told him they plan to do just that. “They don’t want it seen,” he said, referring to the solar panels.
In an interview, he expressed support for the project, which he said would increase tax revenue while retaining western Spotsylvania’s rural character. Benton noted that the state recently purchased a 2,900-acre forest nearby to establish a wildlife preserve. “For that side of the county, we’re going to have our little rural area there for quite a while,” he said. He also said sPower wants to help hunt clubs find other, similar property to use.
The company will generate several hundred jobs during construction and have 10 to 15 full-time employees after that, Benton said.
“They really come across as a very legit, very straightforward, we-do-what-we-say company,” he said.