The Patrick County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance for revenue sharing of solar energy projects and energy storage systems, after several speakers, including one from Pittsylvania County, spoke against solar projects and encouraged caution in allowing the creation of so-called solar ‘farms’ in the county.
Mary Beth Clement traveled from Pittsylvania County to address the board at its January 9 meeting.
“I come to you this evening with words of great caution concerning the much-hyped solar farms and solar facilities,” Clement said, noting that Patrick County is the most beautiful rural county she’s ever seen with its mountains, valleys, creeks, ponds, and acres of pastures and wide-open spaces.
Over the last few years, Pittsylvania County has become a hub of solar facility activity with about 20 solar projects approved that, when complete, will occupy more than 10,000 acres.
“I, like many voting residents, didn’t pay too much attention when the first project came up, as it wasn’t even in my district and was located so far away from my district to be one of those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issues because there was no direct impact to me,” she said.
Clement said she didn’t even know what a solar farm was, or had any clue the word “farm” was a mischaracterization of what the industrial project would become.
“It wasn’t until the summer when I drive through the northern part of Pittsylvania County that the shock and horror was felt. I can tell you once beautiful county landscape and farmland is now littered with thousands upon thousands of solar panels sitting on dirt and for those completed projects surrounded by high fencing with barbed wire that resembles the look of a prison,” she said.
Clement urged the board and members of the Planning Commission to take a field trip to Pittsylvania County to see the completed projects for themselves, and those still under construction.
“Take time to look at the residents who now have this ‘farm’ as their neighbor and ask yourself if you would want to live there, what really happens to the land underneath these panels, the water run-off into the streams, and the water that soaks down into the ground,” she said.
If a solar project is presented in Patrick County, Clement urged the board to go beyond public hearings and notices, and offer its residents town hall meetings or other conversations in every district for any large-scale solar facility applications that are presented.
“Bring to those meetings, information in the form of pictures of Pittsylvania County and conversations with the residents themselves what these projects look like now and what transpired during the construction phases and what life is like after construction is complete,” she said.
Clement added she wants the board to be transparent with residents in what the solar companies offer to the county in return for the sacrifice of its beauty and natural resources.
Michelle McCann, a local resident, urged the board to reject the solar panel proposal based on concerns she shared in an email with the board regarding electronic waste.
“Many surrounding counties have already rejected it. I urge you to preserve our pristine ecological environment. Every tree we cut down reduces our water table as trees make rain. Every river we pollute negatively impacts all life in the surrounding area and downstream,” she said.
Patrick County has 17 rivers with five of them being headwaters flowing into two watersheds and a national park residing in the northern part of the county, she said.
“I urge you to educate yourselves and the citizens of this county regarding electronic waste and our contributions to it. Educate you them on the full lifecycle impacts of renewable energy sources,” she said.
McCann said if decommissioning of the electronic equipment was included, the cost would need to be multiplied by at least four.
“Educate them on the long-term impacts of toxins in our groundwaters and the contributions to its ever-growing volume,” she said.
McCann also asked the board to lobby the U.S. government and the state to create a municipal, cost-effective solution to manage and contain toxic e-waste, and to hold the renewable energy industry accountable to the same standards fossil fuels and nuclear energy sources are held.
“We’ve been sold a tainted bill of goods when it comes to the promise that renewable energy sources are the clean answer to our ever-growing energy needs,” she said.
Jim Best, of Floyd County/Meadows of Dan, said as a member of the Virginia Coalition for Human Rights (VCHR), he’s sharing information from a team of researchers drawn from more than 10,000 Virginia partners.
“In keeping with my family, personal, and scouting values of honesty and transparency, I’ve discovered that” one solar company “violates these principles consistently including their approach to the people of Patrick, Carroll, Grayson, Henry, Franklin, and Tazwell counties just in Southwest Virginia,” he said.
Based on VCHR experience with the company he identified as Energex and its solar proposals over the past four years in Virginia, Best recommended clarifications to the draft of the ordinance.
One solar company “is a large, foreign company of assets of more than $2 billion. Only eight of their more than 24 proposed solar installations are operable,” Best said, referencing a report.
The solar industry became largely commercial in the 1990s, with the initial projects now aging out with landowners and local officials facing the details and expense of decommissioning the solar panels.
Best said one example of non-transparency is the title of the advocate, which is among “96 different post office box addresses created by” the solar company that causes him concern because the name “belies a sense of familiarity and trust among local residents, and frustrates attempts to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), he said.
Best said cadmium telluride, a compound used in all the company’s installations, is a human carcinogen and permanent aquatic poison. Studies to the contrary, presented by the company in public meetings, were funded by the manufactures of these panels, Best said.
“Multiple and extensive independent studies have clearly demonstrated that cadmium telluride can leach from solar panels. Because of the required denuding of the slopes creating increased erosion and watershed problems that the flood plain that adjoins the South Mayo, all downstream projects for public use could be jeopardized,” he said.
Best said the carelessness and haste have resulted in more than $90,000 in fines, landowner lawsuits, and watershed violations for the company, and he noted, that was just in the installation phase of preparing the land.
The company “has yet to divulge its private contract for their decommissioning solar panels and proposes the subtraction of resale value to defray a realistic decommission bond,” he said.
Kurt Bozenmayer, of the Smith River District, said the proposed ordinance permits the county to assess a “revenue share of up to $1,400 per megawatt,” but appears to omit two factors, including how revenue share is defined and how the “up to” factor is determined.
“Upon comparing this proposed ordinance to the enabling legislation, Code of Virginia 58.1-2636, I note that the proposed Patrick County ordinance does not include subdivision A.2 of the state act, which provides for an increase of the maximum amount of the revenue share of 10 percent every five years. Is there a reason why this provision has been omitted from the local ordinance,” he asked.
Wayne Kirkpatrick said he and several other landowners who are around the proposed site of the solar project received letters from the company.
“I got no issue with it coming in as far as solar energy goes. I think that the fact that we’re going to go to reusable energy is a good thing,” he said.
His concerns are what will happen to the solar panels down the road when decommissioned.
“I hope that your ordinance will take care of those items as far as protecting not just the surrounding landowners, but whoever is actually going to inherit that land down the road,” he said, adding that he would also like to see encouragement given to the companies to allow the undergrowth to be grazed by goats or sheep. “Somebody could benefit quite well from that grazing if that’s allowed to happen.”
Before the board took action of the ordinance, Bozenmayer said he believed it would be in the public’s interest for the board to discuss the proposed application of the revenue stream, how many such projects are known to be in the preliminary discussion stages, and how many solar energy projects and energy storage projects are currently proposed or permitted in the county in public session.