8:20am

Mon March 7, 2011
Environment

In Colorado's San Luis Valley, Solar Battle Intensifies

As part of President Obama’s ambitious plan to have 80% of the country’s power come from renewable sources by 2035, the Administration wants to fast-track solar energy development across the Southwest.  Four of the Department’s “solar zones” is in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a remote, mostly poor farming region where the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is from.  But while some residents are eager for the development there, others are fighting to stop it.

Dave Winter is sipping coffee at the Fourth Street Diner in the sleepy little town of Saguache. His ears perk up at the mere mention of commercial-scale solar power coming to this valley.

"The people that I’ve ran into so far that are coming in here with their solar haven’t thought about the people that are here," Winter says.

Winter’s views seem to epitomize this region’s sharp divide over its future.

"These people didn’t settle here so they could look at something that’s ugly," he says. "They settled here because it was a beautiful spot."

A Solar Boom

All of the large solar power projects currently in the works or being planned here have been done on private land.  So the Interior Department’s proposal will be a first for public lands. 

Fifty miles to the south of Saguache in Alamosa, County Commissioner Darius Allen welcomes the Interior’s push to extend solar development to public lands.

"Some of the BLM land right now is there basically to just hold the rest of the world together," says Allen, a farmer who also sells insurance here.  

Under Allen’s watch, Alamosa County recently approved five large projects on private land.

"It’s non-productive type land that in my opinion would be an excellent spot to look at solar fields," he says, referring to some of the proposed Bureau of Land Management land. 

Allen says counties like his need the tax revenue, because a lot of this region’s farm land is about to go fallow as water supplies diminish.  Farming - and potatoes in particular - has long been this region’s lifeline. 

And some like John Eland are starting to think that solar has an equal amount of potential. 

"If we’re going to have large-scale development here, why ship it here, let’s make it here," Eland says.

Eland recently moved here from Ohio to become director of the Alamosa County Economic Development Corporation. He says a solar power boom will bring more research and development jobs, and ideally manufacturing jobs. 

"The valley is isolated from the rest of the world because of the mountains and the passes and you can look at that as a negative or a positive," Eland says. "And we have to be sustainable."

But like most rural areas of the West, sustainable can mean radically different things for different people.

Solar Proposal Fought

George Whitten is a third generation rancher in this valley, but the first in his family to raise organic beef. It eventually ends up on the shelves of the Whole Foods Market up in Boulder.

"There’s a belief that we have to develop rural areas and create jobs and I believe that, I just think we ought to do it in a sustainable way," Whitten says, while walking the perimeter of his wind-swept ranch near Center. 

Whitten and his wife Julie Sullivan are fighting what could be the country’s largest solar power project to date – a 150 MW plant proposed on private land adjacent to their ranch's eastern boundary.

"I’m becoming less and less convinced that large-scale solar development is the best way to go about doing this whether that’s on public land or on private land," Sullivan says.  

Sullivan and Whitten say they would rather see small-scale, distributed solar power like the kind that’s long been on the roofs of many back-to-the-landers who started moving to the San Luis Valley in the 1960s. 

A Push for 'Distributed' Solar

Ceal Smith of the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance moved here about three years ago.  She says rooftop solar projects, and smaller solar farms less than 8 MW can serve this area’s needs locally, and could easily do the same in cities along the Front Range.

"We know the Salazar’s have roof top solar," Smith says.  "There do seem to be some real contradictions in the policies he’s pushing from the Interior Department and the values I know he holds close to his heart about this valley."

But other renewable energy analysts and utility managers are quick to point out that in order to transition the country off fossil fuels in a timely manner, large-scale, even industrial size green power production will have to take place.

Mike Rierson, president of the San Luis Valley Rural Electric Coop, says there’s room for both distributed and commercial-scale solar in the San Luis Valley, which was picked by the Interior Department because of its consistent sunshine and lack of ozone pollution. 

"This valley fully developed for commercial solar, it would be a drop in the bucket for the acreage of this valley," Rierson says. 

Expect all of this to get hashed out Monday night when both sides on the solar issue get to air their concerns before Interior Department officials at a public meeting in Alamosa.  Federal land managers will then head to Utah for more public comment before releasing a final environmental impact statement on the solar-fast tracking plans in the coming months.