Renewable energy project under way

Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Construction on Cavalier Solar, a renewable energy project in Surry and Isle of Wight counties, is slated to start in April, and after 18 months of construction, it’ll be generating power in 2023.

Daniel Menahem, director of solar development for sPower, the company behind the $350 million project, said the process to secure the necessary permits is ongoing. “It’s a process that we expect to take through the end of the year.” Menahem said. “We also have submitted a certificate of public convenience with the (State Corporation Commission),” and that approval should come in March 2021.

Cavalier Solar will generate 240 megawatts of energy. About 4,800 acres around the intersection of Beechland Road and White Marsh Road are secured for the project; however the energy generating infrastructure will occupy about 2,000 acres. Some of the land is being leased. The company plans to sell the power wholesale to an as-yet unnamed buyer.

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According to the company, the cumulative tax revenue over the project’s estimated 35-year lifespan is $7.7 million for Surry and $2.9 million for Isle of Wight; sPower describes this economic growth as “low impact” because it doesn’t require spending on a new school, for example, as a large new residential development might.

The project will incorporate setbacks and natural visual buffers, and connect to the grid via an existing Dominion substation in Isle of Wight County. At the height of construction, up to 300 workers are expected to be on site each month. Upon completion, the project will employ about nine full-time equivalent positions. A fence will surround the acreage with the photovoltaic panels, which will be up to 8 feet tall. The site will be monitored around the clock.

Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, sPower has about 150 renewable energy projects in operation, under construction or planned across the country, including elsewhere in Virginia. A 500-megawatt project in Spotsylvania County is under construction and about one year from completion.

The company said energy generated in Spotsylvania will be sold to Microsoft, Apple, the University of Richmond and other organizations that have expressed interest in using renewable energy. Another project in Charles City County, across the James River and west of Jamestown, will produce 340 megawatts. Construction is slated to start on that in September.

Renewable energy projects received a legislative boost this year with the General Assembly’s passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act. Among other initiatives, the act places escalating mandates on electric companies to produce more power from environmentally friendly sources, with a goal of 100% clean energy by 2050.

Menahem said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the Cavalier project down but “we are not as impacted by the virus, thankfully, because large infrastructure projects take years to develop, to permit, to construct, so our time limits are a bit longer and stretched out.”

“At the same time,” he continued, “it’s taken some time for the localities to figure out how to do business with no in-person public meetings and setting up video conferences for what would otherwise be a public meeting to consider a permit.” The pandemic also has affected the company’s ability to interact with the public.

“We do want to come out, we show our faces. We don’t want to just hide behind a computer screen,” Menahem said. “There’s always concerns and questions. It’s easier and more effective to answer them in person. So that has also limited some of the work we do.”

Before any dirt moves, Cat Mosley, sPower’s community relations director, said the company wants to set a precedent as a good neighbor. They’ve bought gift certificates from local businesses to support the economy, and the company also recently announced a donation that will support and expand wireless internet access for Surry County Public Schools.

In addition, “we’ve made two donations to local workforce development groups — the Greater Regional Workforce Initiative and the Surry County Economic Development Authority,” she said. “We’ve been very involved with the chambers in Isle of Wight and Surry and asked them how we could help.”

Mosley encouraged anyone who is interested in the project to follow the sPower Virginia Facebook page and YouTube channel where some of the people involved talk about their decision in their own words.