Western Colorado county takes a second look at a large-scale solar project

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A proposed solar power farm in western Colorado that would provide local power is getting a second chance after an initial rejection and drawing attention from solar advocates who say it could set a statewide precedent.

At a meeting Tuesday, Delta County commissioners will reconsider a plan by Denver-based Guzman Energy for an 80-megawatt solar facility on 472 acres. Advocates say the farm, about two miles east of Delta, could help make Colorado a leader in combining renewable energy and agriculture at a time when there is a push for more wind and solar power in the face of climate change. climate.

The land, which had been a ranch, will still be used for farming. An area ranching operation will graze 1,000 sheep on the land.

That argument did not convince two of the three commissioners, who in March voted against the plan. Opponents, including area residents, were concerned about the long-term impacts on agriculture and questioned whether a large solar farm would be compatible with the rural area.

As utilities build or tap new solar and wind farms, counties more accustomed to oil and gas wells than wind turbines and solar panels are figuring out how to respond. Guzman Energy and the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, which will buy some of the electricity to power local homes and businesses, hope the revised proposal will win over commissioners.

The planning commission voted unanimously in July to recommend that commissioners approve the project.

“We’re very hopeful this time,” said Tim Vigil, director of operations for the electric cooperative. “We think we are in a better position to move forward and take about 20 megawatts of project capacity.”

Guzman Energy, a wholesale energy provider, says the roughly $80 million project will generate 350 to 400 jobs during construction and $13 million in property taxes over 15 years. It will generate enough electricity to supply some 18,000 homes.

“We’ve tried to be really responsive to community interests and make sure we integrate that agricultural component,” said Robin Lunt, Guzman’s chief strategy officer.

The proposal is an example of agrivoltaics, the use of land for both solar power generation and agriculture. Some mix cattle grazing and power generation. Others use the land under the panels for crops to maximize land use.

Parts of rural Colorado have enthusiastically embraced large-scale renewable energy projects. The Western Way, a self-described conservative environmental organization, released a report in 2020 that said renewable energy has created “thousands of jobs and investments and supported communities” in Colorado’s Eastern Plains. The report projected that owners would get $15.2 million in annual lease payments by 2024 for hosting wind turbines.

Sheep from Brown Land & Livestock graze at the SunShare Community Solar Garden in Platteville, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Sheep from Brown Land & Livestock graze at the SunShare Community Solar Garden in Platteville, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

not all sun

But the prospect of more solar and wind projects springing up in Colorado’s rural open spaces has prompted some local governments to ask for time off. In January, Morgan County placed a six-month moratorium on any projects until it could update its land use codes.

“The reason we were concerned is because we didn’t have anything in our regulations regarding large solar and wind farms or even battery storage systems,” said Nicole Hay, director of the county’s planning department. “We needed something in the regulations to help protect Morgan County residents so that these projects didn’t just come in and do whatever they wanted because we didn’t have regulations.”

The new codes went into effect in July. The head of a solar energy trade group says Morgan County is a success story.

“Honestly, they have the best and most pro-solar policy in the state after having this conversation and digging deeper to understand what solar developers needed and what the community needed,” said Mike Kruger, president and CEO of Colorado Solar and Solar Association. storage.

The solar association met with elected officials and residents in different parts of the state after a handful of counties considered new land-use policies that the group viewed as negative.

“The industry looked around and said if solar is going to happen statewide, we have to get ahead of this and not play whack-a-mole because that takes too long,” Kruger said.

Some new land codes for renewable energy include provisions for solar and wind farm decommissioning plans and bonds to ensure there is money to clean up the sites.

Kruger said communities are also concerned about drying out farmland and impacting views.

Approval conditions

Delta County planning staff have recommended that Guzman Energy post $4.4 million to cover recovery costs when the project, called Garnet Mesa Solar, closes. A $100,000 bond would cover any necessary road repairs due to construction traffic.

Guzman Energy, which is working with Citra Power to build the solar farm, plans to spend about $1.5 million on landscaping and irrigation. Preliminary plans call for the planting of 590 trees and 1,440 bushes.

Guzmán worked with local experts to redesign the irrigation plan, which was a sticking point for the two commissioners who voted against the project in March. Area residents raised concerns about transmission lines and the possible effects of taller power poles on private jet airspace.

Commissioner Wendell Koontz said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the bill before Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioner Mike Lane did not respond to a request for comment.

Don Suppes, chairman of the Delta County Board of Commissioners and the only vote in favor of the project in March, said he supports the right of homeowners to develop their property. He said that the staff did a good job of writing the development agreement.

“I felt like it was a good, solid project that would be good for the valley and good for the energy cooperative,” Suppes said. “And frankly, the state legislature would cut us off carbon fuels tomorrow if they had the choice and they didn’t care how many people they cut off electricity. We have to do everything we can to make sure we’re covered.”

The Colorado General Assembly has passed several laws that set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move away from fossil fuels to address climate change.

The Delta-Montrose Electric Association said the solar project in Delta County would help meet its goals of using more renewable energy and taking advantage of declining costs for wind and solar power.

“In addition to the local hydropower we already have, that project could lead to at least 20% renewable energy from local resources,” said Becky Mashburn, member relations manager for the cooperative.

Tariff stabilization and the development of more local energy sources were some of the reasons Delta-Montrose gave when he paid $62.5 million to terminate his contract with the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in 2020.

“I think this is a great project and a model for Delta County to be a leader in agrivoltaics,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a Paonia-based conservation group.

Léger said the solar farm has received much stricter scrutiny than oil and gas projects and should be approved because it meets county land use codes.

Brown Land Sheep & Livestock...
Sheep from Brown Land & Livestock graze at the SunShare Community Solar Garden in Platteville, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“Utility-scale solar will generate basic fixed costs and will not be subject to the variable costs of the energy market,” Léger said.

looking to coexist

SunShare, a Colorado-based developer of community solar projects, is incorporating agriculture into some of its rural projects in Minnesota and Colorado.

In Colorado, SunShare is working with a rancher who raises a total of 650 sheep in three community solar gardens on approximately 100 combined acres in Weld County. Tom Brown, a fourth-generation rancher and Colorado native, said last year he tended sheep at one of SunShare’s sites as a test. “It really worked out well for both of us.”

Brown Land and Livestock moves the sheep at each site so they graze just enough to keep the grass down, but not too much. Brown said that if he didn’t use the SunShare sites, he would have to find other places.

David Amster-Olszewski, founder and CEO of SunShare, said he hopes to have more agrivoltaic projects next year.

“From an economic perspective, when combined with solar power, it solidifies an income stream for farmers and the tax base for communities,” Amster-Olszewski said. “If you can do that while maintaining the historic use in those counties, whether it’s farming or ranching, you’re not losing anything, you’re gaining.”