Adjacent landowner Stacey Cook looks toward state-owned land north of Interstate 70 and east of Grand Junction Regional Airport and sees property that attracts trespassing campers, people throwing rubbish and start illegal fires, use drugs and cause other problems.
“It became very dangerous. It’s just out of control,” Cook said of the conditions on the State Land Board acreage just east of his land. His property is partly home to the separately owned Grand Junction Motor Speedway.
Now Cook is hopeful about the future of nearby lands due to a proposal to build a large-scale solar energy project under a lease with the state.
Importantly for him, among other things, the project would be surrounded by a security fence. Although the solar panels have a visual impact, he thinks the project would be a big improvement on the current situation.
“With this cleanup, I think it will be a much better visual picture for people traveling on I-70,” he said. “I think it’s a good project for here, and I think it will be an asset.”
The project proposal is presented by SolarGen of Colorado and envisions a 48-megawatt installation that would involve solar panels on approximately 150 acres of a 280-acre parcel leased from the state. SolarGen has a planning lease but could pursue a production lease if it had to overcome hurdles such as obtaining permit approvals, including from Mesa County.
According to Carmine Iadarola, founder and CEO of SolarGen, one megawatt of electricity is enough to meet the needs of about 300 homes in America.
“We just hope we can provide the power needed to meet the state’s renewable energy mandates and move the project forward,” he said.
According to SolarGen’s written project documents, Colorado, as the first state to adopt a renewable energy portfolio standard, “remains a prime candidate for solar development with a stated goal of every utility in the state becoming carbon free by 2050”.
Ken Scissors, co-chair of the Grand Valley Cleantech Business Coalition, is excited about the prospect of such a massive project in a county that has so far seen solar development limited to smaller projects and panels on the roofs.
“This could be the project that everyone’s been hoping for and waiting for, which could maybe show the utility-scale solar world that this (county) is a viable place to do business,” he said.
Sean Norris, director of Mesa County’s planning department, said SolarGen’s project is the largest solar project the county has in front of it as an application.
“We have spoken with representatives from trade associations who have indicated that due to the current administration’s push for many solar opportunities and large-scale solar farms, we may see applications for similar sized projects. or maybe even bigger,” he said. said.
Iadarola said that many companies like to be associated with renewable energy projects in which he has been involved, and that some only want to buy renewable energy, a lack of large-scale local renewable energy production can be a strike against a region in terms of attracting business.
But he is careful to also recognize the impacts of solar energy.
“Solar energy is not God’s gift to man. Like everything, it has its positives and it has its negatives. It’s a piece of the puzzle for Grand Junction’s infrastructure,” he said.
ADDRESSING GLARE PROBLEMS
SolarGen is seeking a conditional use permit from the county for the project. The county planning commission first considered the issue in April and is expected to resume consideration at its meeting on Thursday. He heard from four neighbors of the state property in April who expressed various concerns about the project.
One of them is Mike Lowenstein, who told The Sentinel this week that his main concern, as a private pilot in his youth, is the possibility of solar panels reflecting sunlight back into pilots’ eyes in the airport area. .
He remembers the challenges of his days flying in glare when looking to land at the airport with the sun low in the sky in the late afternoon, and he wants the company to do some computer modeling to assess the possibility that the reflection of the sun will impact the pilots if the project is built.
“If there’s no (problem thinking), then I have no objection to them doing it,” Lowenstein said.
The airport has not spoken for or against the project, but has requested that a glare/reflectivity analysis be carried out in connection with it.
“Where this project is being proposed is in the flight path, the approach flight path to Runway 29. It’s always important for us to understand the potential impact on the pilots, but in this case, it is essential,” said Angela Padalecki, the airport’s director. director.
SolarGen has committed to performing such analysis after the final design is completed, but prior to construction. He says the project cannot move forward without the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration indicating that it poses no safety risk.
Padalecki said if the analysis reveals a problem, the airport and the developer should work together to figure out how to mitigate it.
“It’s a normal path for these types of projects when they’re near airports,” she said.
She said the airport appreciates developers coming to the airport early in the planning phase, as SolarGen did. She said the airport wants to understand how to work with projects rather than throwing obstacles at them, and that it’s easier to do this early in planning rather than asking later for plans to be changed.
SolarGen says it doesn’t expect the panels to produce any issues with reflections or glare, as they are constructed with dark, light-absorbing materials and coated with an anti-reflective coating. According to the company, tiny indentations in the glass of the panel further reduce reflected light.
It says about a fifth of the nation’s public airports have installed solar panels on-site, with Denver International Airport being one of them.
Said Padalecki, “It’s something we hope we can pursue in the future, it’s a potential solar project at the airport.”
She said the facility is in the midst of a planning study to inform airport development. In some areas, the highest and best use may be a building such as a hangar, but in some areas, such as those that are noisy due to takeoffs and landings but would not have reflectivity issues , solar panels could be a good use of land that might otherwise go unused, she said.
Lowenstein said that other than the glare issue, he has no other objections to the proposed solar panels “other than the fact that they’re ugly, but some things can’t be avoided.”
He said there isn’t much you can do about the appearance of the panels, let alone the visual impact of the power lines associated with them.
“If they installed a wind farm, we would have a real battle to fight. They’re not just ugly, they’re dangerous, and they make noise and they’re absolutely as ugly as anything can get,” he said.
SolarGen believes the project will not be visible to most area residents living south of I-70. It plans to use landscaping and fence screens to minimize visual impacts, including for highway motorists.
According to Iadarola, SolarGen is considering both Xcel Energy and Grand Valley Power as potential interconnection points for the project’s power generation, but SolarGen cannot speak to Grand Valley Power immediately due to contractual arrangements.
In Xcel’s case, SolarGen sees its project as helping the utility in its quest for more renewable energy supplies.
Iadarola said one of the benefits of the project is that it would not take land away from agricultural production.
“We particularly like this site because it has no water and it has no infrastructure,” he said. “…We plan to make this land productive and we don’t need water, we don’t need sewer (service).”
Like Cook, SolarGen outlines how a solar farm could address concerns about what’s happening on the now vacant property.
“This area has had issues with vagrancy,” said board spokeswoman Kristin Kemp.
She said the council owns more than 3 million acres spanning the state and has only 45 employees, and relies on its tenants for day-to-day monitoring of the land.
While 98% of its land is leased for purposes such as agricultural use, mining development and renewable energy generation, the majority proposed for the solar project has generally not been previously leased, making its more difficult to manage, she said.
“We are pleased that SolarGen now has a planning lease on this parcel and can regularly monitor the property,” she said.
FUNDS FOR SCHOOLS
Generating solar power would mean more money for education in Colorado from State Land Board revenues. The council was the primary source for the Department of Education’s Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program, which provides competitive capital construction grants to schools.
SolarGen estimates that if its project goes ahead, it could generate $300,000 in annual revenue for the school board and education.
The distribution of these revenues is not tied to where they are generated, which is a good thing in the case of Mesa County. It has only about 1,300 acres of state trust land, but county schools have still received more than $20 million in BEST grants.
The SolarGen project could significantly add to renewable energy projects, which currently generate about 300 megawatts of energy, most of it from wind power.
Colorado and some other states continued to receive land from the federal government that was not received upon becoming a state, Kemp said.
Part of this debt has since been settled, notably through land transfers by the BLM. The State Land Board continues to work with the BLM to settle the remaining debt, Kemp said.
A 36-inch-diameter Ute Water Conservancy District water main crosses the property proposed for the solar project and was subject to a right-of-way agreement with the BLM.
When ownership was transferred to the state, Ute was never granted an easement. Ute Water and the State Land Board have discussed this oversight, which could eventually be resolved through a new agreement.
However, SolarGen plans to accommodate the pipeline and a power line that crosses the property.