Representatives of five counties gathered June 24 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 “Harnessing Solar Benefits for Western Colorado” – including staffers from nearly a dozen solar developers, several nonprofits, the Bureau of Land Management, Club 20 and Sen. John Hickenlooper’s office – demonstrated that the topic has become one of mainstream interest.
The regional conference was the second of three being conducted around the state by the Colorado Solar and Storage Association. Garfield Clean Energy co-hosted.
“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, there was broad agreement that an increase in large solar and storage projects is inevitable and that it represents an economic development opportunity for Western Slope communities if properly planned for.
In opening remarks, Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky noted that “this is an ideal county for solar” and 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, he 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,” 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, the Carbondale-based nonprofit that runs the programs of Garfield Clean Energy.
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, according to the report.
GCE 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 the recent installation at Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus.
Solar developments can add to a county’s net bottom line, noted 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…. 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, 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 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, make it harder to attack) and noise (solar panels make no noise, and storage systems just hum).
A session moderated by Club 20 executive director Christian Reece 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 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. 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.
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.”