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NPR 2019-03-26


A Battle Is Raging Over The Largest Solar Farm East Of The Rockies


Large-scale solar power got started in the sun-drenched deserts of California. These days, demand is spreading. The largest solar farm east of the Rocky Mountains could soon be built in Virginia. But as Jacob Fenston of member station WAMU reports, it's meeting fierce opposition.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Drive through rural Spotsylvania County, Va., and you'll see forests and farms and Civil War battlefields. Then, you come upon a stately brick wall with the words, Fawn Lake, a gated community with a private lake and a golf course.

DAVE WALSH: You can see over here.

FENSTON: Dave Walsh moved here to retire. We drive down a cul-de-sac and look through the trees behind an unbuilt lot.

WALSH: All that area is clear-cut where solar panels are going to be. And it's on a hill. There's no way you can disguise that.

FENSTON: One corner of the massive project would butt up against the back of this gated community. Walsh and others at Fawn Lake say they support solar in theory, but not here.

WALSH: It's not in keeping with the type of setting that people bought houses here - you know, they wanted to be out in the woods, essentially.

FENSTON: Opponents have a long list of arguments against the project. They say it's too big, half the size of Manhattan. They say it will hurt property values. And they say the supposedly green technology is actually bad for the environment, causing trees to be clear-cut. They've been packing into public hearings by the hundreds, testifying late into the night.

Greg Benton is on the county board of supervisors representing the area. The opposition took him by surprise.

GREG BENTON: My initial reaction was this was going to be the easiest decision I'd ever make.

FENSTON: The solar plant would pay millions in county taxes but use virtually no county services.

BENTON: No schools, no teachers, no firetrucks, no ambulances, no police cars, no traffic on the road - I mean, how much easier can you get?

FENSTON: A private developer called sPower is behind the solar project. Most of the energy would be sold to Microsoft to power its enormous cloud data centers in Virginia.

SCOTT SKLAR: This is the start. This is the harbinger of a real maturing industry now.

FENSTON: Scott Sklar is a sustainable energy professor at George Washington University, and he's been involved in solar since the 1970s. He says solar is growing so quickly on the East Coast, conflicts like those in Spotsylvania will only become more frequent.

SKLAR: I understand concern, but you really have to look at the bigger picture here that if you do not move in this pathway fast and ambitiously, you are going to have way more problems than having some gleaming solar panels.

FENSTON: He's talking about climate change. Scientists say there's just a decade or so to drastically reduce emissions in order to prevent some of the worst impacts of global warming. But many solar opponents in Spotsylvania are skeptical, and they've taken their case to national audiences on Fox News. Host Sean Hannity linked the project in Virginia to a big climate proposal by Democrats in Congress.


SEAN HANNITY: What really happens when a Green New Deal project comes to a neighborhood near you?

FENSTON: But some neighbors welcome the project. While some say they'll leave if the solar farm happens, David Wilson says he'll leave if it doesn't happen.

DAVID WILSON: So I started weighing the differences. What's going to happen here in my backyard?

FENSTON: Wilson's house is right next to the solar project. Ever since he moved here from D.C. 26 years ago, the land has been owned by a timber company. He's seen it clear-cut four times. Now the company wants to sell. Wilson says he's not a liberal or a big solar advocate, but he'd rather have solar panels next door than a housing development.

WILSON: You wouldn't be in the country anymore. I mean, then you'd be back into another urban jungle, basically.

FENSTON: The fate of the solar farm is still uncertain. Virginia's already approved it. Now it's up to the county board of supervisors. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.


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