A 500 megawatt solar project in Spotsylvania County, Virginia has drawn attacks from climate skeptics, fossil fuel interests, and right-wing news outlets.

The Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center, developed by sPower, was first proposed in December of 2017 and would be the largest solar farm on the east coast. Apple, Etsy, Microsoft and the University of Richmond are among the customers lined up to purchase power from the new solar farm.

The only poll on the project, which was commissioned by sPower, found 67 percent of local residents in support, and 27 percent opposed.  

Residents’ concerns received some attention in the local media early on in the debate over the proposed project, and soon became the subject of much hype from the echo chamber of renewable energy opponents backed by the fossil fuel industry. Fox News and Sean Hannity recently added to the furor.

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) granted conditional approval for the solar project last August.

“We find that the proposed project will likely generate direct and indirect economic benefits to Spotsylvania County and the Commonwealth as a result of employment and spending from construction and operation,” the SCC said at the time.

The matter is now before the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors, which is hosting a public hearing on the solar project this evening. The hearing comes after county staff recommended approving the solar farm, citing independent analysis commissioned by the county that found little evidence to support opponents’ most overhyped claims about the project’s risks. The county planning commission recommended approving only a small portion of the project.

The controversy over the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center provides a case study for examining how front groups for the fossil fuel industry influence local debates over renewable energy projects, and manufacture broader controversy by hyping stories of local opposition to solar and wind power projects.

Below are some examples of how this project became a target in a broader war on renewable energy.

Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County echoes anti-solar attacks from front groups for the fossil fuel industry

The website of the Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County, the main local group that’s been voicing concerns about the solar project, echoes attacks on solar power by the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) to back up its claim that renewable energy will result in an “inevitable increase in electricity bills for consumers.” CFACT has received funding from the Koch network and the coal industry, and the group denies the scientific consensus on climate change.

The “Defend Taxpayers” page of the Concerned Citizens’ Google Site also includes excerpts of anti-solar attacks by other special interest groups funded by the fossil fuel industry:

sPower estimates that the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center would generate millions of dollars in revenue for the county over the life of the project.

Climate skeptics affiliated with the Heartland Institute and an oil and gas executive targeted public hearings on the proposed solar project

Before the State Corporate Commission (SCC) approved the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center last summer, it held public hearings on the project in Spotsylvania and Richmond. Not everyone who weighed in against the project was from Spotsylvania County.

Arthur “Randy” G. Randol III attacked the proposed solar farm in a memorandum sent to the SCC last May, shortly after the SCC held its public hearings. Randol noted his affiliation with the Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment (VA-SEEE), a climate skeptic group. He listed his location as Alexandria, about an hour drive from where the local hearings took place.

Randol did not disclose to the SCC in his memo that he is the executive vice president of environmental and government affairs for Green Century Resources, LLC, an oil and gas company headquartered in Midland, Texas. He previously worked as a consultant for coal producer Peabody Energy, and before that spent 25 years working for ExxonMobil.  

Policy advisors for the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank that denies basic climate science, also testified at the public hearings. The Heartland Institute received $1.75 million from Donors Trust, a dark money conduit linked to the Koch network, in 2017 alone.

Ken Haapala of Fairfax, also about an hour drive from Spotsylvania, described the electricity generated by solar power as “junk juice” (his name was misspelled “Haopala” in the hearing transcript) at a public hearing in Spotsylvania. In addition to serving as a policy advisor for the Heartland Institute, Haapala is the president of a Virginia-based climate skeptic group called the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP).

Another Heartland Institute policy advisor named Alan Carlin, also of Fairfax, delivered a diatribe against climate science at a later hearing held in Richmond.  

In December, the Heartland Institute published a report on the project with the headline, “Proposed solar farm spooks local Virginians.”

The Koch-backed Daily Caller also targeted the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center

The Daily Caller, which received nearly $2 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute in 2017 alone, has targeted the Spotsylvania solar project for attack several times.

The headline of the first Daily Called report on the project, published last May, warned of a “coming wave of toxic solar panel waste.”

“We estimate there are 100,000 pounds of cadmium contained in the 1.8 million panels,” a representative of the Concerned Citizens of Spotsylvania County was quoted as saying.

Similar claims can be also found on the website of the Concerned Citizens group, and a Facebook group dubbed “Spotsylvania Take a Stand: No Toxic Solar Panels.”

The solar panels sPower wants to use actually contain cadmium telluride, a compound that “is much less toxic than pure cadmium,” according to the independent expert hired by Spotsylvania County to analyze the potential impacts of the project

The county’s consultant “conducted a literature search for studies and documentation related to cadmium telluride and its use in solar panels.”

“… there is little evidence to suggest that CdTe based solar panels present risk to the population or environment,” the county’s consultant found. “If they are handled properly during all phases of construction and disposal, they will not emit any toxicity into the environment.”

The Daily Caller followed up with a second hit piece in July of last year. Another Daily Caller report published last week attacked the Spotsylvania solar project as “Virginia’s own version of the Green New Deal.”

The anti-renewable energy echo chamber at work

Other examples of the right-wing media outlets and special interest groups backed by the fossil fuel industry that have targeted the solar project in Spotsylvania County can be found below:

Top photo from Flickr by Kristian Buus. Creative Commons License info

Posted by Dave Anderson

Dave Anderson is the policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. Dave has been working at the nexus of clean energy and public policy since 2008. Prior to joining the Energy and Policy Institute, he was an outreach coordinator for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is also an alumnus of the Sierra Club and the Alliance for Climate Protection (now the Climate Reality Project). Dave’s research has helped to spur public scrutiny of political attacks on clean energy and climate science by powerful special interests, such as ExxonMobil and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). His work has been cited by major media outlets, such as CBS News and the Wall Street Journal, and he has served as a speaker on panels at national solar industry conferences. Dave holds a MA in Political Science from the University of New Hampshire, where he also received a BA in Humanities.