A rendering of what drivers on Garnett Mesa near Delta would see from the proposed solar farm.
Locals take pride in growing their own food. But produce their own energy? Not so much—at least when it’s not fossil fuels
Story/photos by Allen Best
The central question in a story out of Colorado’s Delta County is what exactly were the two commissioners thinking when they voted to deny a permit for a 472-acre solar farm?
Reports in the Montrose Daily Press and the Delta County Independent, two jointly owned newspapers, offer only the thinnest of explanations why the commissioners, in a 2-1 vote, denied a permit for the solar farm proposed by Guzman Energy and Delta-Montrose Electric.
The 80-megawatt solar farm, said Commissioners Mike Lane and Wendell Koontz, would cause loss of agricultural land and was incompatible with existing uses.
The third commissioner, Don Suppes, told the Daily Press that he was “apprehensive about the precedent that we’ve set here.” He cited private property rights.
“In an attempt to save farm ground, we have to be careful that we are not dooming a farmer to maintain an operation that they cannot afford to operate anymore,” he said.
This may be the first solar project in Colorado rejected on the basis of lost agricultural productivity. Proposed solar projects have run afoul of local sensibilities, including in Pueblo County, but on the issue of aesthetics. An installation was also rejected in Park County because of impacts to pronghorn.
“I’m dumbstruck,” said one Delta County resident, who was among several local residents consulted for this story on the promise of confidentiality.
Another local resident, Natasha Léger, executive director of Paonia-based Citizens for Healthy Community, was willing to speak on the record, and she had the same reaction: “I’m frankly flabbergasted.”
On the simple basis of economics, she pointed out, the solar project would have been a huge win for Delta County. The land now used for cattle grazing yields $3,000 a year in property taxes for Delta County and its various taxing districts. Over the space of 15 years, that will be $45,000.
That compares with $13 million during the same time if the land became covered with thousands of solar panels.
The commissioners, said Léger, did not talk at all about the economics, nor did they cite specifics about how this conflicted with the Delta County land-use code that was adopted in early 2021, the county’s first. quasi-judicial bodies, when making decisions, must cite the specific conflicts with the code, she points out.
Adding further perplexity to the story is that Guzman Energy, who would have purchased the power through a power-purchase agreement from the developer, proposed to continue to use the land for agriculture, working out a deal to graze sheep on the parcels. The soil at the location on Garnet Mesa, about three miles east of downtown Delta, is not particularly fertile and hence ill-suited for corn or other row crops.
A final noteworthy fact is that the land in question is located near an existing electrical substation—and a quarter of the electricity produced by the solar farm would have been sold to the local electrical cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric, supplying about 20% of the demand in Delta and Montrose counties. It would have supplied enough electricity annually to meet needs of 18,000 homes.
Delta County is a place that at times is among the most forward-looking enclaves in the Rocky Mountains and, at other times, a place that lags.
Consider building codes. The county itself has no building code, although the towns within the county do. Meetings are not broadcast live, unlike most places, although audio recordings are made. They can only be accessed through request of the county clerk. It didn’t have a land-use code until the beginning of 2021.
Agriculture, mostly corn and forage crops for livestock, dominates along the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers. In the North Fork Valley east of Delta there are apple, pear, and other orchards around the towns of Hotchkiss and Paonia and a growing number of specialty farms, including those dedicated to organic methods. Some of the orchardists, such as Steve Ela, travel every weekend during summer and fall to Colorado’s Front Range to sell their fruit at farmers’ markets.
Coal used to be a major part of the county’s DNA. Several mines operated near the hamlet of Somerset, a few miles from Paonia. In the last decade, most mines have closed, leaving just one still operating.
Even as coal miners have left, others have arrived, creating a boom in real estate that has roughly tripled prices in just a few years. The prices are not those of Steamboat Springs or Durango, let alone Vail or Aspen, but for a place with mountain skylines, it’s hard to beat.
That’s another way of saying it lacks the wealth of mountain resorts or Front Range communities.
The 2020 census found that the median family income in Delta County was $51,539. Along the I-70 corridor, Garfield County (think Glenwood Springs) was $57,022 and Eagle County (think Vail) was $74,456.
Along the Front Range it was $58,628 in Larimer County (Fort Collins and Loveland) and $57,125 in EL Paso (Colorado Springs).
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Lacking great wealth, there tends to be an attitude of grow-your-own and self-sufficiency in Delta County.
That was one of the motivations for Delta-Montrose Electric, the local electrical cooperative, to break with its wholesale supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Tri-State in 2005 wanted Delta-Montrose and other member cooperatives to commit to their all-requirements contracts until 2050 so that Tri-State could build a new coal-fired power plant in Kansas. Delta-Montrose refused the 10-year extension, the start of frictions with Tri-State that ultimately resulted in Delta-Montrose paying $63 million to buy out its contract with Tri-State in 2020.
Denver-based Guzman Energy, a relatively new firm created to take advantage of opportunities in the pivot to renewable energy, immediately replaced Tri-State as the wholesale supplier. It offered a new model, one demonstrated with its first major client, Kit Carson Electric.
Kit Carson, also a cooperative, in 2006 had similarly rejected Tri-State’s vision of coal-burning electricity far into the 21st century.
It broke with Tri-State in 2016, and expects to have paid off its $37 million exit fee this summer while almost simultaneously completing enough solar farms across its service territory in northern New Mexico to meet the daytime needs of its members.
Guzman offered a similar pathway for Delta-Montrose. This solar farm near Delta was going to be the first major step in creating home-grown energy. Guzman would own the power but sell it for the next 15 years to Delta-Montrose in a power-purchase agreement, a common business practice that allows private companies to recoup federal tax credits.
The project jibed with the land-use plan for Delta County. The planning staff recommended approval. Planning commissioners were more skeptical but were persuaded by the win-win described by representatives of Guzman and Delta-Montrose. That body in a 6-2 vote recommended approval.
A key feature of the proposal was the concept called agrivoltaics. The idea, demonstrated at Jack’s Solar Garden near Longmont, is that agricultural production can continue on land, sometimes with the added benefit of solar panels. Corn does not benefit from more shade, but potatoes do. So, perhaps, can some grazing animals. Ever notice grazing cattle gathered in the shade of a tree on a hot summer day?
This was cited by Suppes, the commissioner who voted for the project. “They were going to graze sheep underneath,” he told the Daily Press. “This isn’t row crop agriculture, like sweet corn or green beans or onions or whatever. This is a different type of agriculture, but grazing is an incredibly important part of agriculture in Delta County,” he said.
“To me, this isn’t necessarily about solar power. This is about multiple uses of land.”
Why did the two county commissioners reject the proposal? There had been testimony from neighbors who objected to seeing the solar panels. But then, those knowledgeable with the area say this is not exactly a place governed by the mow-your-lawn-weekly covenants of a home-owners’ association.
Others wonder if the backgrounds of the two commissioners influenced their votes.
Wendell Koontz is a geologist who worked for a now-shuttered coal mine near Paonia. Mike Lane, the other commissioner voting no, grew up in Delta County, ending his work in the private sector with 9 years as a Halliburton employee.
Their vote was exceptional, say courthouse observers, in that nearly all cases in the last 20 years the votes of commissioners have been unanimous.
The Montrose Daily Press talked with Bill Patterson, a board member of Delta-Montrose Electric, who said the vote was “kind of a kick in the teeth.” The cooperative and Guzman issued a joint statement that emphasized the economics as well as the benefits to the local electrical grid.
In an interview the day after the vote, Robin Lunt, chief strategy officer for Guzman, said she remained hopeful that a solution could be found but she did not elaborate on the options.
Closely watching the solar application was JoAnn Kalenak, who several years ago began publishing the Delta County Citizen Report after 18 years with High Country News. She sees Delta County’s elected officials painting themselves into a corner. What specifically about this proposal violated the land-use code that is supposed to be guiding such decisions?
A test case may be a proposal for a concrete batch plant in the same area. Will the commissioners also nix that because of incompatibility with previous uses?
The bigger, broader issue is what is the future for agriculture in Delta County? As the one commissioner said, if a farmer can’t sell but to another farmer, what are the real options? And that calls into question the future of agriculture. Can the same level of agriculture be sustained in coming decades? Commissioners have approved large chicken-farming operations of 15,000 to 25,000 chickens. What about a few thousand solar panels with 600 or 700 head of sheep?
Climate change, a topic broached carefully if at all in Delta County, is the background issue that Kalenak sees. If temperatures across Colorado have been rising across the Southwest, a band across western Colorado stands out as super-charged heating. That may have to do with the reduced water flows. It most certainly has in the Colorado River Basin altogether, as has been established by climate scientists, including a new report published in February in Nature Climate Change.
That shifting climate may also have something to do with the so-so water flows of recent years. Runoffs have trended downwards.
“Because of climate change, ranchers (and farmers) need the ability to get innovative on their land,” says Kalenak.
And that then poses the question of what change can be accepted?
Bob Kalenak, JoAnn’s husband and a board member for the non-profit Delta County Citizen Report, sees a county that is fundamentally stuck. The county engineer for 13 years, he sees elected officials afraid of change. The solar farm represented change.
“This was a pretty much no-impact operation, but it scared them,” he says.
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This story was corrected to refer to a land-use code adopted in 2021, not a master plan adopted in 2020, as originally reported.
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As a homeowner just east of where the panels was to be installed. I have a hard time believing that this large solar field would not decrease our property values. Also coming from a ag background, I have a hard time believing that there would be enough grass grown to pasture 600 head of sheep. Not only would grass not grow well in the shade. But sheep can become very destructive to equipment. They chew and rub on stuff. And if this is built like the solar field between delta and montrose, there is a lot of exposed wire. Of course this is just my opinion. But I believe that after just a year or two this ground would be as barren as the Adobe around it.
One of the questions I always had was why DMEA and Guzman wanted giant centralized solar energy rather than than disbursed solar, which would have meant putting panels on roof tops, maybe with a lease/maintenance program for their revenue source.
I’d be happy to have solar panels on my roof with the excess energy produce going into DMEA’s grid.
Todd, I don’t live in Delta County, but I visit frequently and often work with farmers there. It sounds like there is a proposed cement plant that could be built near the same site. So I’m curious, would you rather have an inert solar farm with some sheep or a big, dusty cement plant as your neighbor for the next 30 years?
The solar farm would provide $13 million in county tax revenue for the next 15 years. What concerns you about how it would lower your property value in today’s real estate market? I’m not asking to be contentious. I’m interested in your thoughtful response. Thanks.
We are a bit behind the times in the U.S. and Colorado. Sheep are grazed under PV arrays worldwide, particularly in Australia. The PV industry knows how to modify the wiring. I’m also told goats are a much bigger problem. Oregon State University has done very quantitative research, though with lambs in a less arid pasture. They used stocking rates around 20 lambs/acre, though it seems only for four months total per year or so. The specifics are in a link within:
This always seems to come up in discussions of large scale solar. “Rooftop” solar in the US typically costs a bit over $3/Watt fully installed. These central solar fields cost about $1.25/Watt here. The central solar fields also produce more energy per Watt by using trackers. So if folks want “affordable” solar there will be solar fields (70% less cost/kWh). With a healthy residential PV system at 7 kW and maybe some commercial systems here and there, also figure it would require 10,000 installations to equal the annual output of this. I think that would take a long time in DMEA’s territory.
I’ve worked with solar and building energy efficiency since 1984. Now that solar is inexpensive enough to supply large fractions of our power, it (and wind power) are being blocked at the local level. When this happens to the O&G industry, they go ballistic, but we seem to just roll over and take it.
Starting at minute 1:10 in https://www.npr.org/podcasts/985779910/k-v-n-f-regional-newscast
One of the commissioners voting no is recorded saying “It’s nice to have solar panels and go green. I think it’s something that’s coming. It would be nice to say it’s sustainable energy, but when the sun doesn’t shine, the sun doesn’t shine.” The reporter also notes he says that this will encourage farmers to sell out for more of these projects. First, he seems not to have heard about energy storage in all its forms, and also that we use more power during the day. Also, I bet that the local grid could not handle more than several of these projects, leaving 98% of their ag land under clear skies.
If one follows conservative and evangelical media, it’s clear that renewable power is being attacked with all kinds of misinformation. And I think fans of the O&G industry want to stick it to the renewable energy industry in retaliation for what they see as endless grief from the environmental movement. I live 80 miles away and there are something like16,000 gas wells in our county. One big solar field in Delta County is too much?