Get Big Pivots

Several counties told they will likely see many proposals for solar projects in the next 3-5 years


by Dave Reed

It’s time for solar energy to shine in Colorado’s energy transition.

In 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Colorado had 1,054 megawatts of utility-scale solar power-generating capacity installed with an additional 750 megawatts of solar power capacity scheduled to come online by the end of 2022.

More yet can be expected, the result of still-lowering prices for solar panels and a raft of requests for replacement generation by utilities as they close increasingly uncompetitive and polluting coal plants.

But there has been pushback, first in denial of a solar project near Delta and then another near Pueblo.

To improve the dialogue with local jurisdictions, the Colorado Solar and Storage Association scheduled sessions for local governments first in the Sterling area and then, in late June, in Rifle, with yet at third planned for Lamar.

At the Rifle meeting, representatives of six counties compared notes and discussed strategies for preparing for an expected surge in utility-scale solar development on the Western Slope. Others who attended included staffers from nearly a dozen solar developers, several nonprofits, the Bureau of Land Management, Club 20, and Sen. John Hickenlooper’s office.

Garfield Clean Energy, a collaborative of major employers that works to accelerate progress toward clean energy goals, co-hosted the event with the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, or COSSA.

“Two years ago this conversation probably would have been premature,” COSSA executive director Mike Kruger told attendees. “Two years from now it will probably be too late. That’s why we’re having this conversation right now.”

Alluding to the rejections in Delta and Pueblo counties, Kruger later explained that his members believe local officials need “real knowledge about the technologies. Our hope is that a discussion and open dialogue would ensure that decision-makers, especially county commissioners, have all the information they need prior to deciding on land-use codes and individual projects.”

Kruger expects “hundreds of megawatts” of new solar generation will be developed in Mesa, Garfield, and other Western Slope counties during the next three to five years.

Participants at the Rifle meeting, if coming from different political and ideological perspectives, seemed to broadly agree that an increase in large solar and storage projects was inevitable and that it represented an economic development opportunity for Western Slope communities — if properly planned for.

“This is an ideal county for solar,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who described it as part of an “all-of-the-above approach” to achieving energy independence. A 10-megawatt solar project currently in development near Parachute – the county’s largest to date – has been projected to generate $1 million annually in property taxes. The project was approved by Garfield County with the expectation of having the project in operation by the end of this year. It also has a storage component.


Drivers of the solar push

Driving this solar land rush, said Kruger, is Colorado’s greenhouse-gas reduction roadmap goals. The roadmap released in January 2020 projects construction of 9 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030.

Utilities are also motivated by the long-term price stability of renewables, he said, as power-purchase agreements lock in prices typically for 15 or more years.

Most of the investment is going into wind farms on Colorado’s eastern plains, said Kruger, but utilities want to diversify their portfolios with some solar projects in western Colorado.

“Putting them all in the same geographic place, with the same weather, is putting all your eggs in the same basket,” and that isn’t good for grid reliability,” he said.

The potential opportunity for counties is significant, said Katharine Rushton, a renewable energy consultant for Clean Energy Economy for the Region, a Carbondale-based nonprofit.

Rushton cited a 2021 study of the solar and storage potential in Garfield, Eagle, and Pitkin counties that estimated the market potential of community-scale solar on private land in the three counties to be more than 230 megawatts. That’s enough to supply nearly a quarter of current electricity consumption.

Full development of that potential would yield $26 million in additional property tax revenue, $31 million to landowners in the form of lease payments, and $110 million added to the local economy over 30 years, according to the report.

Garfield Clean Energy, a major funder of the study, has played a key role in promoting solar development in that county. In recent years it has organized the successful Solarize rooftop-solar program, helped local governments make their building codes “solar-ready,” and provided technical assistance on projects, including a major installation at Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus that will benefit Holy Cross Energy.

Solar developments can add to a county’s net bottom line, because they generate property tax revenue without incurring extra costs such as road maintenance, said Page Bolin of AES Clean Energy, a division of AES Corp., a Fortune 500 company. It has a Colorado office in Louisville. “The solar project just kind of lays there…. You get the revenue without the impact.”

County staff and elected officials had many questions and concerns.

Matt Mooney, vice president of development of Balanced Rock Power, reassured attendees that there’s little risk of rural countryside being blanketed by solar panels. By his calculations, even the massive 4-gigawatt request for proposals that Xcel is expected to release this fall will result in only about 12,000 acres of solar – a “postage stamp” in comparison to the 31 million acres of agricultural land in Colorado.

To the concern that solar could take valuable agricultural land out of production, Bolin responded that the lease income from such projects can actually help farming families hold onto land that they might otherwise have to sell for permanent development. Michael Baute, an expert in regenerative energy and carbon removal with Silicon Ranch Corp., described how animal grazing operations can coexist with solar installations.

Other speakers allayed fears about chemical leakage from broken solar panels (the panels actually contain only inert materials), the fire risk of onsite battery storage systems (they have sophisticated fire-suppression systems and are subject to strict fire codes), terrorism (solar and storage projects actually help decentralize the grid, making it harder to attack) and noise (solar panels make no noise, and storage systems just hum).

A session moderated by Christian Reece, executive director of Club 20, tackled some of the thorniest issues: county codes, permitting, and NIMBYism.

Multiple speakers stressed that the solar industry expects to be regulated, likes it when counties provide clear direction to developers through their land-use code, and prefers to be involved in those discussions early on so that there are no surprises.

Taylor Henderson of Outshine Energy, who is also a director of COSSA, said that organization is developing a set of best practices for counties to consider in updating their codes. He pointed out that solar and storage development is different in significant ways from the kinds of industrial uses that many counties’ land-use processes are designed to regulate.


Pre-empting the NIMBY impulse

County representatives, for their part, urged solar developers to do a better job of selling the benefits of solar and addressing the general public’s concerns in order to pre-empt the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) impulses that are often fanned by such proposals.

“If you don’t have the right answers I’m going to have a hard time supporting it, and it’s my job to review these projects,” Mesa County planning manager Sean Norris said.

The conference itself earned high marks from participants for getting the conversation about solar started.

“This (conference) is the kind of thing that we really want to be doing more of, engaging with folks locally,” said Henderson.

Added Rushton: “I think the key takeaway is that when the industry gets together with the people responsible for the future of their counties, there’s a meeting of the minds and a realization that there are some very significant benefits to welcoming solar development in the community.”

Dave Reed is communication director for the Carbondale-based Clean Energy Economy for the Region. The organization works to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

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