Various members of the Culpeper County Planning Commission pressed executives for answers on a variety of topics related to the latest utility scale solar project proposed for creation in Culpeper, this time on 807 acres near the Rapidan River on the county’s southern end.
A development team of 10 people attended Wednesday’s first public meeting on the already high-profile “Cricket Solar” case that would place 271,656 modules on various parcels of farmland along a three-mile stretch Algonquin Trail in the rurally located Raccoon Ford area.
No public comment was taken at the work session, but a number of neighbors opposing the sun-bridling development showed up to listen.
Director of Project Development Kara Price, with Geenex Solar based in Charlotte, North Carolina, started the two-hour meeting with a PowerPoint presentation on the proposal her company is developing that would then be owned by BayWa renewable energy, based in New Mexico.
The ultimate goal, according to the company, would be to sell the project to Dominion—it is located in proximity to the power company’s transmission line to which it would connect. Cricket Solar LLC has applied for a conditional use permit to build the project Price said would employ anti-reflective technology and use recyclable materials.
Nationwide, the solar industry employs 374,000 people, Price said, noting there are now more solar than coal jobs in Virginia. She explained why solar companies are turning their eye to Virginia and why Culpeper was targeted for Cricket Solar.
“We are following the high demand for renewable energy from corporate off-takers,” she said of the big power companies.
The state’s regulatory climate, in addition, promotes access to renewable energy with 5,000 megawatts declared by the Virginia General Assembly to be in the public interest, Price said. For Culpeper, it’s also about location—good topography and access to the transmission line.
“And we have willing landowners who want to diversify their income and preserve their assets,” the developer said. “They need money to be able to keep farming.”
Tuesday night, Cricket Solar held a community meeting in the area to hear from neighbors concerned about the future of the project and who answers for it 20 years from now.
“It’s true, these projects can be sold down the road,” Price said, adding that the Cricket Solar LLC would continue with the life of the project as well as any conditions that become part of the conditional use permit. “If the conditions are not met, the county can pull the permit.”
She said the project would be located amid large tracts of timberland in an area that also has substantial wetlands. The Army Corps of Engineers is monitoring that portion, Price said, which could require additional “shifting” of the project. A lot of the natural buffering on site will be kept in place and the project will be located 150 feet from the road.
“Most people won’t see it,” she said.
The solar farm will be located 845-feet from the nearest home of a landowner not involved in the project, Price said, noting it does border “core” Civil War battlefield without infringing on it. It also avoids the largest areas of prime farmland, she said.
An extensive plan for decommissioning the project after its estimated 40-year life will be in place, she said. Price added the plan would basically follow the same standards for the Greenwood Solar project the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors approved last year on 1,000 acres near Stevensburg, about five miles north of the Cricket Solar project.
To ensure decommissioning takes place, the company will provide a letter of credit or cash bond based on an engineer’s estimate of what it will cost to remove the panels and associated equipment as well as return the soil to its original condition. The cost estimate will include the salvage value of the metal—more than 90 percent of the materials can be sold for scrap or recycled at project’s end, according to Cricket Solar.
In addition to the county, the project is undertaking permitting through VDOT, DEQ and the local soil and water conservation district, which will oversee erosion and sediment at the site. According to Price, the 10- to 14-month construction project will generate 200 local jobs as well as permanent positions after the fact. She said the project could attract data centers to Culpeper and would be an economic benefit on many fronts.
Planning Commission concerns
Several planning commissioners, including Laura Rogers, expressed concerns about the decommissioning process and if the county “would be left holding the bag” if funds are inadequate to cover it. A project executive responded that during the first 20 years of the “power plant,” the materials would be under warranty and that the solar project would be running at 80 percent at 20 years.
“At 15 years, that project is worth a lot of money,” he said, noting “big investors” are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to build such projects. “There is a tremendous value in this power plant even after life—it’s a $100 million power plant.”
Rogers doubted the solar panels would be worth that much and the details of the decommission plan.
“How many projects have you decommissioned and put the soil back to its original condition?” she asked.
The executive replied, “None,” noting solar projects are still relatively new. He went on to say the soil, after solar use, would be in better condition than it is today. The company does not intend to use herbicides or other chemicals on the land, and agreed to do soil testing every few years.
“I am 100 percent confident it’s just going to be dirt,” the executive said.
Planning Commission member Cindy Thornhill expressed concern about the area’s wetlands and chemicals possibly leeching into the soil and water. She also worried about the neighbors; two in particular Thornhill said have million dollar homes in the area. The planning commission member asked that the project be shifted to avoid the two homes, which gave Kara Price pause.
“We are trying to have a balance here,” said the solar developer, noting the project already shifted to avoid core battlefield areas. “A lot of the homes are already more than 800 feet from the project.”
Thornhill took issue, saying, “You shifted for the historic folks—they are in the past. Make some concessions for the living.” She also asked about the solar panels possibly attracting and hurting birds, which company officials said was a non-issue.
Planning Commission member Lou Price worried about farmland that would be taken out of production for the solar project. “Agriculture has been an important part of Culpeper’s history and we’d like to see it stay that way,” she said.
Kara Price responded that the solar project would allow some of the landowners to continue farming.
Planning Commission Chairman Sanford Reaves thanked the executives for their time and noted another work session would be held on the case. He asked for additional information at the next meeting on potential impacts to neighboring property values, which the company has claimed would be none.
A neighbor weighs in
Neighbor Kevin Dix attended Wednesday’s work session to hear more about the solar farm he fears will disturb a quiet way of life along the Rapidan River, where he has lived since 2005. Dix, a Marine Corps veteran, said he moved to the rural hamlet to escape the hustle bustle of Manhattan, where he grew up.
Dix said the project will completely change the landscape in the area, impacting wildlife and adjoining landowners through glare, construction noise and loss of farmland.
“I’ll have to look at 800 acres of blue panels now instead of a nice cornfield,” he said. “Then the solar farms get sold and sold and sold and who is left holding the bag when it comes down to something going wrong? It comes down to being steamrolled by big business. I came here to get way from the glass and the concrete that is now being brought right to my doorstep.”
Cricket Solar is the third project of its type to surface in Culpeper. Last September, the board of supervisors rejected an application from Virginia Solar to build a smaller project on 178 acres of farmland between Stevensburg and Brandy Station after the planning commission recommended denial of the use permit because it felt it was the wrong place for it.