Garfield, neighboring counties prepare, pave the way for solar surge
Special to the Post Independent
Representatives of five counties gathered last month for an all-day conference in Rifle to compare notes and discuss strategies for preparing for an expected surge in utility-scale solar development.
The roster of other participants at the June 24 “Harnessing Solar Benefits for Western Colorado” included staffers from nearly a dozen solar developers, several nonprofits, the Bureau of Land Management, Club 20 and Sen. John Hickenlooper’s office.
It also came as Garfield County commissioners recently approved a major new solar farm near Parachute that is expected to produce enough energy each year to power 4,392 homes.
The regional conference was the second of three being conducted around the state by the Colorado Solar and Storage Association.
The conference was co-hosted by Garfield Clean Energy (GCE), a collaborative of local governments and other major employers that works to improve energy efficiency and accelerate progress toward clean energy goals.
“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.”
While participants came from different political and ideological perspectives, they seemed to be in broad agreement 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,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in opening remarks.
Jankovsky said he expects solar to be part of an “all-of-the-above approach” to achieving energy independence.
He added that a 10-megawatt project currently in development near Parachute — the county’s largest to date — is expected to generate $1 million in property taxes annually.
Kruger noted that a number of factors are driving the solar land rush.
The state of Colorado has adopted a greenhouse-gas reduction roadmap that anticipates the construction of 9 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, and utilities are planning massive requests for proposals to help meet that goal and their own commitments.
Utilities are also motivated by the long-term price stability of renewables, Kruger said, and all the more so with the current spike in energy prices.
And while most of the investment is going into wind farms on the eastern plains, Kruger said the 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,” he said, adding that isn’t good for grid reliability.
Power potential great
The potential opportunity for counties is significant, said Katharine Rushton, a renewable energy consultant for Clean Energy Economy for the Region, the Carbondale-based nonprofit that runs the programs of GCE.
Rushton reported on a 2021 study of the solar and storage potential in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, which estimated the market potential of community-scale solar on private land in the three counties to be more than 230 megawatts — 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 land owners in the form of lease payments and $110 million added to the local economy over 30 years, the report concluded
Garfield Clean Energy was a major funder of the study, and it has played a key role in promoting solar development in the 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 such as a recent 4.5 megawatt solar farm installation at Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus outside Glenwood Springs.
Solar developments can add to a county’s net bottom line, said Page Bolin of AES Clean Energy, because they generate property tax revenue without incurring extra costs such as road maintenance.
“The solar project just kind of lays there,” Bolin said. “You get the revenue without the impact.”
Much of the conference was taken up with addressing questions and concerns expressed by county staff and elected officials.
Matt Mooney, vice president of development of Balanced Rock Power, said 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 would result in only about 12,000 acres of solar — a “postage stamp” in comparison to the 31 million acres of agricultural land in Colorado.
Bolin spoke to a concern that solar could take valuable agricultural land out of production, saying 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 on regenerative energy and carbon removal with Silicon Ranch Corp., described how animal grazing operations can coexist with solar installations.
A session moderated by Club 20 executive director Christian Reece tackled some of the thorniest issues: county codes, permitting and the concerns of neighboring property owners and residents.
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 member of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association board, said that COSSA is developing a set of best practices for counties to consider in updating their codes.
County representatives urged solar developers to do a better job of selling the benefits of solar and addressing the general public’s concerns.
Parachute project approved
Last month, Garfield County commissioners approved a major impact land use change permit, clearing the way for a large photovoltaic solar farm south of Parachute.
AES High Mesa Solar is constructing a solar energy and battery storage power facility that is projected to produce 31,851 megawatt hours (MWh) each year.
The farm supports Holy Cross Energy’s (HCE) goal to obtain all its energy resources from renewable sources by 2030.
The project, to be located on Garfield County Road 300, is expected to create as many as 45 construction jobs and $5.6 million in wages during the building phase.
At the end of the project’s life, the farm is to be decommissioned, and the land restored to its prior condition.
Dave Reed is communications director for Clean Energy Economy for the Region, based in Carbondale.
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