Four years in the making, Culpeper County’s first utility-scale solar generation facility, a 90-megawatt plant contested by neighbors, has won approval for 732 acres of woods and farmland near Stevensburg.
The Culpeper County Planning Commission voted 6 to 2 at its Sept. 13 meeting to approve the site plan for Greenwood Solar, a project along Batna and Blackjack roads and the Algonquin Trail.
The developer is Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy, which bills itself as the world’s largest energy company.
Commissioners Katie Reames and Keith Price voted against the plan, after appointees sought more assurances from NextEra that the site’s cleared land, once covered with more than 351,000 solar panels, could handle runoff from major storms. and not flood the neighborhood.
The commission also expressed concern about blasting at the site during construction.
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Nearly four years ago, the County Board of Supervisors approved a conditional use permit for Greenwood to build on farmland, giving the green light to the development despite concerns from neighbors.
Will it flood?
Since supervisors approved Greenwood in 2018, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has implemented a stronger post-development policy for large solar power plants. The DEQ handles stormwater regulation and issues approvals for the county.
The agency’s stricter guidelines are intended to ensure the protection of waterways and downstream properties as well as ensure consistency with the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program. The new rules, approved last March, require the surface of solar panels to be subject to Virginia’s stormwater management program and considered impervious surfaces when authorities apply post-development engineering criteria.
But Greenwood Solar is not required to meet the new regulations since DEQ approved its plan in 2020.
That didn’t stop the Planning Commission last week from wanting assurances from developers that the area wouldn’t be flooded. Members also asked about blasting and potential damage to people or property.
Richmond attorney Dabney Carr IV, along with Troutman Pepper, said it was uncharted territory. “That never happens,” Carr told the commission.
Commissioner Raymond Ziegler said the potential for flooding at the site, as well as blasting, could put residents at risk.
Carr said the project was built to DEQ and VDOT standards and would include 40 retention ponds.
Ziegler referred to solar projects in another nearby county being washed away by the weather. “Someone said it’s fine… (we’re trying) to protect our citizens here a bit more,” he said.
Carr repeated the DEQ’s conclusion that the county cannot impose stricter requirements.
“The project does not cause any additional flooding, according to analyzes over 10 years, 20 years, 100 years. It makes it less,” Carr told the commission. “We cannot say or promise that there will never be floods in the future. All we can do is evaluate.
Every release point on the 1,000-acre site was analyzed to standards for a 10-year storm event, as required by the DEQ, Carr said. Flood risk decreases after development, he said.
Commissioner Lancy Kilby said he was still not convinced that adjacent properties covered in solar panels would not be flooded. He and other commissioners asked the developer to do a stormwater volume analysis for a 100-year event. Carr replied that the deadline for the commission to act on the site plan was approaching, before its October meeting.
Culpeper County Planning Director Sam McLearen said the commission has the authority to impose additional conditions on the project, noting the state statue is setting the clock for site plan action .
Disrupting 732 acres of land at once is a first for the county, McLearen said.
Carr reiterated that Culpeper cannot impose stricter regulations than the state government. “You’re asking us to make a promise…all we can do is analyze,” he said.
DEQ: Comply with local rules
In granting approval in 2020, DEQ said its “authorization to construct and operate will not relieve Greenwood of responsibility to comply with all other applicable local, state and federal laws and regulations, including, but not limited to, strict compliance with applicable national and local erosion and sediment control and stormwater management laws.
The DEQ strongly encouraged Greenwood to, among other things, minimize habitat fragmentation by leaving round rather than long and skinny fragments of natural cover and forest land and maintaining connecting corridors that allow for significant wildlife migration. between the fragments while designing an intermediate landscape for the benefit of the habitat.
In its letter of endorsement from Michael G. Dowd, director of its air and renewable energy division, DEQ also strongly encouraged Greenwood to coordinate with the state on wildlife fencing to allow entry and exit. enclosure to minimize the potential for white entrapment. tailed deer.
The company submitted vegetation management and landscaping plans.
2,200 truck trips, Blackjack Road entry
A Construction Traffic Management Plan for Greenwood Solar approved by the Virginia Department of Transportation indicates that primary construction access to the site will be via an access point on State Route 661 (Blackjack Road). The site includes an existing farm road entrance approximately 700 feet from its intersection with Batna Road.
All truck and heavy vehicle traffic will approach the site from State Route 3 (Germanna Highway), head south on State Route 663 (Batna Road) and turn right onto Route 661 (Blackjack Road) 700 feet before turning left. The existing farm road would continue on this parcel and be aligned with the intersection of Route 663 (Batna Road) and Mountain View Farm Road.
Permanent access to the site after construction will be provided by eight access points, including the entrance on Blackjack Road, which will also be the main access point for all deliveries and employees.
Construction traffic will consist of component deliveries (i.e. solar panels, inverters, construction equipment, etc.) and passenger vehicles/trucks (two-axle) carrying personnel, tools and minor equipment to/around the construction site.
The project will include approximately 351,540 solar panel modules (310,176 435w modules; 41,364 390w modules) and approximately 10 lineal miles of internal driveways. The expected construction period is 8 to 10 months, including one to two months of grading and site preparation, four to six months of solar panel installation, and one to two months of electrical work and inspection.
The proponent estimated that the construction will generate approximately 2,200 truck trips. Semi-trailers accessing the site should not exceed 53 feet in length.
NextEra Energy Inc. owns Florida Power & Light Co., the largest electric utility in the United States, established in 1925. The company sells more electricity than any other utility, providing clean, affordable and reliable electricity to about 5.8 million customer accounts, or more than 12 million people across Florida, according to the company profile.
The company also owns NextEra Energy Resources, the world’s largest producer of renewable energy from wind and solar, and a world leader in battery storage.
On Tuesday, Greenwood Solar’s project manager and a company spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email from the Star-Exponent requesting a construction start date.
The neighbors of the Culpeper project, including John Covington, owner of the historic Rose Hill Farm adjoining the plant site, opposed Greenwood Solar from the start and still do.
Their opponents of the project are its impacts on historic resources, the loss of agricultural land, a proliferation of solar projects to follow, the fact that energy produced on the site will be exported, and the danger of toxic pollutants.
Gale and Eloina Gibson, residents of Raccoon Ford Road, wrote a memo which forms part of the extensive public commentary in the case.
“For generations, the area has been a popular hunting ground for local families and other sports enthusiasts. This activity will surely be affected,” they wrote, expressing concern over the plant’s potential to harm the environment, native plants and trees, and wildlife.
“The study area supports a variety of animals that are declining in other parts of the country,” the Gibsons wrote. “Birds including quail, wild turkeys, whip-poor-wills and cuckoos are all residents. Reptiles such as several varieties of snakes, toads, frogs (tree and pond), skinks and lizards are here. Large-scale solar fields are not compatible with their needs.