In southern Colorado, a battle over a proposed high-voltage transmission line is dividing environmentalists and putting the future of large-scale solar power development in limbo.
With an average of 340 days of sun annually, it’s not surprising the San Luis Valley is ground zero for solar development in the state.
“If you look on any map where it talks about sunshine and solar, we’re the target,” said Darius Allen, an Alamosa County commissioner.
The county is already home to an 8-megawatt solar power farm and a 17-megawatt solar farm is under construction.
As water supplies in the valley trickle away, Allen – who is also a farmer – hopes sunshine can become the area’s next cash crop. Allen and his fellow commissioners have approved three large solar-power developments recently. Six more applications are pending. Companies like the reliable sunlight and the high altitude, which means less ozone pollution.
“You know, you look at a project on 200, 250 acres, they’re gonna spend a couple hundred million bucks,” Allen said. “Well that’s quite a shot in the arm for us down here in the valley.”
Existing Transmission Stretched
The San Luis Valley is one of the poorest parts of Colorado, and producing solar power for the Front Range would bolster the local economy. But there’s a problem. Xcel Energy and Tri State want to build a high-voltage power line connecting the southern Front Range with the valley. More transmission lines mean Xcel can generate more solar power and meet an increased state renewable energy standard.
“We’ll meet that mandate. But what’s really in doubt right now is specifically the questions of how, and where?” Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said.
Construction of the transmission line has been delayed due to mounting local opposition, much of it led by a wealthy landowner whose ranch lies right in the path of the proposal.
Hedge fund managing owner, Louis Bacon, who rarely talks to the press, bought the ranch from the Forbes family three years ago.
“He’s a conservationist,” said Cody Wertz, Bacon’s spokesman, during a tour of La Veta Pass, where the line would be run. “And he purchased this as another conservation property with the intention to one day place another 88,000 acres under conservation easement.”
The utility companies are proposing to use eminent domain to build their power line through the ranch. But Wertz says Louis Bacon has proposed several, viable alternative routes. One is along an existing transmission corridor.
“This is billionaire NIMBY-ism,” Stutz said. Xcel’s proposed route is the shortest and most cost-effective, Stutz said. Citing uncertainties over the line’s construction, this month Xcel scaled back on plans to add more solar power to its renewable energy mix.
Calls for Distributed Solar
It isn’t just billionaires fighting the line. You’ll find similar opposition in this valley from a whole separate and loud contingent of Birkenstock-clad back-to-the-landers.
Activist Joy Hughes lives off the grid with solar panels on her roof. She thinks Coloradans should get their solar power like she does, or from community solar gardens, not from far flung rural places like this.
“It’s what we call the tragedy of the commons,” Hughes said. ” It’s most profitable for any single company to put their power plant in here. But it’s better for the whole state, if they’re all over the place.”
Hughes worries industrial-scale solar power will eat up precious farmland, and be an eyesore for tourists who flock to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
“They’re using the same tactics and the same laws as the gas companies were,” she said. ” It feels like an extractive project.”
Hughes’ sentiments highlight just how difficult bringing solar power into the mainstream is in Colorado and across the US. Debate over the Xcel project has sharply divided environmentalists across the state.
“We can’t do any energy development without their being some impact, that’s just impossible,” said Gary Graham, of Boulder.
He’s the transmission director for the environmental firm Western Resource Advocates. Rooftop solar is great, he said, but it won’t put a dent in fighting climate change.
“Denver, (the) Front Range is a huge market for energy, period,” Graham said. “You can’t meet that demand and retire dirty sources of electricity without identifying some place to do utility scale generation.”
And in the San Luis Valley, at least one of those utility-scale projects is going forward, despite the uncertainty over new transmission lines.
“It’s kind of a new age direction for us as a company, and we’re really excited to push this technology to the forefront,” said Jeff Freeman, a vice president with Cogentrix Energy, speaking from a field where his company hopes to build a 30-megawatt solar plant.
If all goes as planned, construction should begin later this year. Freeman said there’s enough room on the existing grid for this project to help meet the growing demands on the Front Range. But the same may not be said for other companies down the road, if Xcel’s project remains in limbo, he said.