A 500-megawatt solar power generating facility operating on about 2 million solar panels and erected on land stretching 10 square miles, covering over 6,000 acres—about half the size of Manhattan—is being proposed in Spotsylvania, Virginia. If constructed, it will be the largest solar project east of the Rocky Mountains and one of the largest in the world. The Virginia State Corporation Commission has given conditional approval for the facility, which will have 1.8 million solar panels. The builder, Sustainable Power Group, plans to have the first phase of the solar-generating plant operating by next June. But the proposal must meet several requirements beforehand, one of which is to obtain a special use permit from the county.
The Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors has the final say and can require the company to meet certain stipulations, such as lessening the environmental impact. Because the solar plant requires large amounts of water to clean the panels, concerned citizens worry that the aquifer that supplies water to homes and farms could be damaged or depleted. Run-off into wetlands and nearby streams is another concern. Also of concern is that the solar panels will contain approximately 100,000 pounds of either cadmium—a carcinogenic substance that can lead to health issues—or cadmium telluride, which the builder claims is insoluble and possesses different chemical elements than the carcinogen cadmium. The worry is that chemicals could leach into the soil if the panels break.
The project has a projected lifetime of 35 years, which is about half of the time that a typical fossil fuel or nuclear plant could operate. Because solar is an intermittent technology, which only provides power when the sun is shining, it will need back-up power, typically from gas-fired generators, to provide electricity around the clock. It also has an estimated $31 million decommissioning cost, but recycling could reduce some of that cost.
The 500-megawatt solar facility would be built in four phases, with the panels taking up about 3,500 acres on the 6,000-plus-acre site owned by the builder. The size of the four components is as follows:
- Pleinmont Solar 1 – 75 megawatts
- Pleinmont Solar II – 240 megawatts
- Highlander Solar Energy Station 1 – 165 megawatts
- Richmond Spider Solar – 20 megawatts
The company plans to use existing and replanted trees, berms, and other buffers to keep the facility out of sight of neighboring properties. The panels are to be built to withstand 130 mile-per-hour winds. When completed, the solar plant will have 10 to 15 full-time employees.
Virginia’s largest solar farm to date is 100 megawatts, so if this farm is built, it will be five times larger. Other large solar projects of this size in the United States are built in un-populated desert areas in the Southwest, far away from residential areas. This facility would be near some 7,000 residents.
Microsoft plans to purchase 315 megawatts, with the rest available for other entities via the PJM interconnection. More recent agreements are with the University of Richmond and a group that includes Apple. According to Microsoft, it would be the largest corporate purchase of solar power in the United States. Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook—some of the nation’s biggest technology companies—are driving the growth of renewable power. These technology companies are moving into Virginia and want renewable energy to power their facilities.
In giving its conditional approval, the commissioners stated that the company bears the risk and must abide by regulations, which include paying for system upgrades to avoid potential impacts to rate-payers and adhering to environmental oversight.
But other citizens’ concerns are the solar farm’s effect on taxpayers through increased electricity rates, potential bankruptcies of the limited liability corporations established to build and operate it once the current federal and state subsidies expire, potential loss in property values to homeowners and the cost to clean up the site. Because there is no fuel cost associated with solar power, some people believe that it is cost-free, but that is not the case since rate-payers must pay for the cost of the solar panels, inverters, and associated necessary industrial facilities and their installation and on-going maintenance.
The 30-percent federal investment tax credit for commercial solar facilities is being phased down after 2019 to a permanent 10-percent tax credit in 2022 so there is a big incentive for the builder to start construction in 2019. According to the Energy Information Administration, a 500-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant could cost around $1 billion, and the investment tax credit would provide a $300 million taxpayer subsidy to the owner if construction is started before the subsidies are phased down.
Virginia’s new energy law that took effect July 1 stipulates that adding 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar to the state’s generation portfolio by 2028 is in the public interest.
Virginia may be the first state east of the Rocky Mountains to build a massive solar power plant. While concerned citizens are fighting the proposed plant due to potential environmental and cost issues, large technology firms are indicating their interest in purchasing the power. Microsoft has already agreed to purchase over 300 megawatts.
The land mass of the proposed 500-megawatt plant is humongous