david kerr H&S

In William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” Viola refers to our sun as, “…that orbed continent the fire. That severs day from night.”

It’s our star, and astronomers call it “Sol”. It’s 92 million miles away, 109 times larger than Earth, and its massive day-in and day-out fusion-generated heat and light are what keep us alive.

However, for all that, we also take it for granted and sometimes forget that along with its life-giving rays, it also offers one of the cleanest sources of alternative energy available.

That’s why a joint venture energy company called sPower wants to build the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi in nearby Spotsylvania County.

Spotsylvania is south of Stafford, on the other side of the Rappahannock River. While heavily developed — just drive down Va. 3 and you’ll readily agree — it nonetheless has a strong rural character, and a lot of open and undeveloped land.

It’s a big county. That, as far as sPower is concerned (that’s short for Sustainable Power), makes it an ideal location for a large solar facility. Or, as some like to call it, for a solar farm.

What sPower has in mind, and the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors will be making its final decision on the project his month, is 1.8 million solar panels on a 6,300 acre parcel. That’s almost 10 square miles.

The actual generating facility will cover 3,500 acres, while 2,850 acres will be preserved as open space and buffers. The facility is expected to generate 500 megawatts of electricity, making it one of the largest solar power facilities in the nation.

As a reference point, one megawatt is considered enough to power 200 homes. However, sPower and Dominion already have their customers lined up. They will use an existing Spotyslvania substation to channel power to such customers as the University of Richmond and Microsoft.

The project is big and has been the primary item of business this year for the Spotsylvania Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The planning commission has held half dozen meetings where this project was the principal piece of business. The same is true for the Board of Supervisors.

There have been public hearings, public meetings and special sPower informational briefings in each of the county’s magisterial districts. While sPower and its supporters have tried to make the case concerning the benefits, opposition to the project has proven surprisingly strong.

The facility will be near two recreation-oriented communities that aren’t happy about a project of this scale so nearby. The idea of a tract with 1.8 million solar panels on it doesn’t appeal to them as the ideal neighbor.

sPower has tried to alleviate some of their concerns. They increased the size of the buffer areas, made plans to assure adequate and safe control of water runoff, and have made efforts to curb concern about the use of hazardous materials.

But concern about the project remains and while the Board of Supervisors appears to be leaning toward supporting the new solar facility, the outcome at this point isn’t clear.

Solar power enjoys a reputation as the ideal clean energy, but in project after project there is often local opposition. Perhaps it’s because most people have never seen a large solar power farm.

A recent project in Ohio faced concerns from local residents about the loss of good farm land and concerns about what all those solar panels would mean to the local ecosystem. There is also the belief that solar panels won’t work in the frequently rainy and overcast eastern United States.

Surely, or so goes this line of argument, this technology is better suited to sun drenched Nevada, Utah or Texas. However, solar panels have improved over the years, their efficiency is vastly better, and even on a cloudy day they can generate considerable power.

One worry was that the panels would create a reflective nuisance or a heat sink. Neither turns out to be much of a concern.

The panels aren’t reflective and don’t absorb or project heat to affect their surroundings. There was also some wariness over the use of cadmium, a poison and a known carcinogen. However, when used in solar panels, it’s in the form of cadmium telluride, which as a compound is inert.

Compared to other power sources, such as coal, nuclear and even natural gas, solar is decidedly placid.

The plant will pay taxes, will employ about 25 people, make next to no noise and bother no one, all while generating pollution-free electricity. It sounds like a good deal.


David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.

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