by Bea Ferrigno

Last month the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held tours and workshops at three San Luis Valley (SLV)  sites proposed for solar development.  On September 8 at the De Tilla Gulch site near Saguache, project manager Joe Vieira explained that while the BLM has not done much mitigation of development impacts in the past, under the direction of former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, all Interior agencies now conduct landscape-scale assessments and plan regional mitigation strategies. There are currently 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) in six western states undergoing public examinations. In Colorado, the area under consideration for solar power generation includes the entire SLV, from Poncha Pass to Española in New Mexico.  Three sites have been selected for possible solar development: one southeast of Antonito, another west of Romeo, and one near the landfill in Saguache County, northwest of the intersection of  County Roads AA and 55 and south of Hwy. 285.

The site is 1000 acres of a BLM grazing allotment that has not been in use for 20 to 30 years; at first glance, it looks like the chico-dominated range that covers the northern SLV. The BLM’s detailed assessment, however, delivered by several staff members with the support of solar experts from Argonne National Laboratory, revealed the terrain holds much more than meets the eye.  There are actually numerous resident and transient animals, plant communities  and other ecological conditions that could be affected by development. These include wildlife—Gunnison prairie dogs, bats, pronghorn, burrowing owls and others;  cultural artifacts—remnants of a trail used between 1829 and 1848; watercourses, soil conditions, groundwater, and viewsheds—the area is visible from the higher elevations at Great Sand Dunes National Park.  All these and other factors add up to some 250 conditions that  would have to be mitigated by any solar developer.  The eventual developer or operator would also have to obtain sufficient water for operations: while the amount required for solar energy production would be less than crops of alfalfa or potatoes, there is only one stock well on the site.  A solar plant at this location could ultimately supply 170 megawatts of power, or enough for 56,000 homes. There is clearly not that large a market in the valley, so power would be exported on upgraded Excel lines.

Some members of the public in attendance expressed concern that income from an eventual solar plant would all go to the federal government, an issue recently addressed by county commissioner Jason Anderson at meetings in Washington.  Also noted was the practice in Germany and elsewhere of utilizing smaller, community-based solar projects that cause less ecological disruption.  Vieira responded that the United States has decided large solar operations are a valid use of public lands that can provide clean power to those who can’t afford to install solar panels on their homes.  This is also an effort for the next 20 years, with mitigation plans worked out ahead of development in order to streamline the process. Notwithstanding, the Romeo and Saguache sites were unsuccessfully put out for bid last October. Apparently developers realize the market won’t yet support  such large undertakings where 50 megawatt facilities might be suitable.