Colorado’s San Luis Valley rips with solar capacity but lacks a way to get the electricity to market. What will it take? A conversation is beginning at the state’s PUC.
by Allen Best
The San Luis Valley is loaded with solar energy potential. It is uncommonly sunny, even by Colorado standards, and it lies at 7,000 feet in elevation, which means that solar photovoltaic production occurs efficiently — actually more efficiently than some hotter, even sunnier places such as in the Mojave Desert.
If the Pueblo area has solar values of 7 or 8 on a scale of 10, as the developer of the Bighorn solar project associated with the steel mill said, then the San Luis Valley has to be even better.
Absent is the necessary transmission, a way to get the solar production to markets.
Now comes a new docket at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that is intended to provide a “repository for comments and as a means to further examine potential transmission solutions for the San Luis Valley.”
The way such processes at the PUC work, parties who want to participate in the proceeding must file their notice of intent. That deadline is Dec. 30. The deadline for initial comments will be Feb. 3, 2023.
Transmission has frustrated Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities for more than a decade. In 2009, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission set out to build a 136-mile transmission line across La Veta Pass and to the I-25 corridor. The PUC approved the plan, but a mixture of landowners and others – most notably Louis Bacon – prevailed. Bacon, a hedge fund manager, owned the adjoining Trinchera and Blanca ranch properties’ 171,400 acres. Xcel formally withdrew its proposal in 2015 and Tri-State went in other directions.
This story was published in Big Pivots 63 (Nov. 30, 2022). Please consider subscribing.
The utilities had rejected Bacon’s argument that it should hew to an existing transmission corridor out of the north end of the valley; they said it would put too much transmission in one area. For a time, Tri-State explored new transmission from the valley south into New Mexico.
Increased transmission capacity came up again in 2021 as Xcel Energy and various industry and other groups sorted through Xcel’s proposal of nearly $1.7 billion in transmission to access new wind and solar resources, primarily in eastern Colorado.
Colorado Solar and Storage Association teamed with the Alamosa County commissioners to make the case that the PUC needed to nudge Xcel into more aggressively pursuing new transmission.
“Some of the first solar fields were built in Alamosa County decades ago,” a Sept. 13, 2021, letter from the commissioners to the PUC said. “The demand for additional growth in solar farms has been muffled by the lack of transmission lines to explore this valuable resource and support the demand for power on the Front Range.”
The San Luis Valley – there are six counties in the valley – is among Colorado’s poorest, and it has its back up against the wall because of the need to trim water consumption used for irrigation.
“Shut down the wells? Those family farms and ranches that once had value will no longer be able to support themselves,” the letter from the county commissioners continued.
“However, when additional transmission lines are added or able to transport additional solar energy, we can convert some of those farms and ranches into solar farms, making good use of the land, preserving the water, and satisfying the Front Range’s hungry appetite for additional green energy.”
Mike Kruger, chief executive of the solar industry organization, argued that the decision whether to build transmission belongs to the PUC, not to Xcel. He also pointed out that SB21-272, the PUC modernization act, requires accounting for socioeconomic disparities when making decisions regarding electrical generation.
The San Luis Valley is “one of the areas of the state that could most benefit from renewable energy. It is heavily reliant on agriculture, and with a changing climate and reduced water, requires economic diversity.”
Not so fast, said Xcel in its filings from 2021. Testimony by Carly Rowe cited the land administration of a multitude of federal agencies, a national park, and three national wildlife refuges as being among the factors that make the valley a “more difficult, time-intensive, costly and risky location in which to develop a large-scale transmission project.” Too, the geography is more difficult than, say, the plains of eastern Colorado.
The upshot was called by these and other parties at the table (the Colorado Energy Office, labor organizations, Western Resource Advocates and others) to have this sorted out in the proceeding that the PUC commissioners approved on Nov. 16.
Also relevant is that Xcel has various upgrades underway, such as to reduce wildfire risk. The commissioners said in their decision that they want to examine how the utility’s “substantial investments in that area may, in the not-too-distant future, host significant solar-generating resources.”
Likely germane to this proceeding is the potential under-grounding of transmission. It’s far more expensive than standard overhead transmission techniques, but legislators in 2021 created a new state agency, the Colorado Electric Transmission Authority, that will have expanded powers and the ability to finance projects.
See the next story: New transmission agency seeks executive director
Why support Big Pivots?
You need and value solid climate change reporting, and also the energy & water transitions in Colorado. Because you know that strong research underlies solid journalism, and research times take.
Plus, you want to help small media, and Big Pivots is a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Big grants would be great, but they’re rare for small media. To survive, Big Pivots needs your support. Think about how big pivots occur. They start at the grassroots. That’s why you should support Big Pivots. Because Big Pivots has influence in Colorado, and Colorado matters in the national conversation.