Saguache, CO – Stakeholders flooded the historical Saguache County courtroom to standing room only for a chance to have their say on what could be the San Luis Valley’s first industrial solar energy generation plant. While several companies have proposed utility-scale facilities in Colorado’s premier solar energy generation zone, the Houston based company is the first to get this far in the permitting process.
More than 125 local citizens from this rural, agricultural community overflowed the room. Many were third generation ranchers and farmers, but the crowd also included business owners, contractors, doctors, scientists, engineers, educators, artists and environmentalists reflecting the intense interest the project is generating in the San Luis Valley. Tessera representatives did not attend the meeting.
County Board of Commissioners Spearman, Joseph and Pace convened the informal meeting on Friday, Dec. 11th to gather public input on Tessera’s 1041 permit preapplication for a 200 MW facility on County Road T near the town of Saguache.
Tessera is proposing on-site assembly and installation of 8,000 – 40-foot diameter SunCatcher Concentrated Solar Power systems, each one driven by a hydrogen-fueled Stirling engine. The facility would include two, 2.4 million-gallon evaporation ponds, 100 miles of maintenance roads and underground electrical lines as well as a new 320 kV substation and other outbuildings. The initial site is 1,525-acres but Tessera is also considering an adjacent 5,000-acre expansion area to the northwest.
According to neighboring landowners, the site is on intact range and wetlands in the areas largest drainage. The land is owned by the Woodward Ranch but is currently under lease by the Coleman Ranch, a pioneer in natural and organic beef since 1875. Other working cattle ranches, some in operation for over 100 years, surround the site.
Nancy Lauro, consultant with Russell Planning and Engineering facilitated the meeting. The Saguache County Land Use Department contracted with the Durango firm to advise them on the 1041 permitting process. As she explained the process to the eagerly awaiting audience, Lauro noted, “this project is huge” and “in my 25 years of public service [in La Plata and Summit Counties] I’ve never seen a project of this magnitude.”
Of the two-dozen or so people who spoke, four commented favorably on the project. Jason Davidson, Moffat Town Board member, said he was “generally in favor of the project” because it would “bring in jobs and tax revenue, possibly as much as $2 million a year.”
Contractor Larry Smith commented, “I’ve been looking for a good green job.”
Physician and sound expert Vince Palermo expressed concern about the noise from 8,000 Stirling engines in this “very quiet place.” He said he “hoped they would find a better place in Saguache County” for this industrial plant, because “we need the jobs and the clean energy to fight climate change.”
Virginia Sutherland, now in her 80’s has ranched in the San Luis Valley all of her life and lives next to the Tessera site. She asked the crowd to “visualize 8,000 of those 40-foot tall circular mirrors”, “imagine the thousands and thousands of trucks on T-road, mixing in with tractors and cattle and people trying to do their business.” “This is way off the mark” said Sutherland, “it will eternally and forever destroy this land and we cannot push the undo button.”
Retired university physics professor Thad Englert expressed worry that “the vibrations from driving the 25-foot pilings into the ground could cause our wells to close up with sand.”
Larry and Jeannie Ewing live closest to the proposed project site.
Larry questioned how well Tessera’s high-tech experimental technology would work in the extreme environment of the San Luis Valley. “According to their own specs, these SunCatchers don’t operate below 14 degrees or above 35 mile hour winds”, said Ewing “on a day like today they could only operate between about 10 am and 3 pm.” “This giant project belongs in Commerce City, not here”, concluded Ewing, as the crowd cheered.
Barbara Tidd questioned how the nightlights from the 2.3 square mile complex might affect the colony of hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tail bats that summer in the nearby Orient Mine. “These bats provide important pest control to farmers in the Valley” Tidd emphasized, “How they will be impacted needs to be seriously studied.” According to biologists, the bats eat as much as 1,000 pounds of insects a night.
A popular theme throughout the meeting was the preference for smaller scale community-owned solar development. “We’re the pretty girl at the party,” declared solar advocate Joy Hughes, “we can do whatever we want.” Astronomy teacher Shannon Beaulieu challenged the Commissioners to “reach for the highest mark. ” “We can choose the best technology and where to put it,” she urged.
May Engquist acknowledged the Commissioners efforts to establish a Valley Power Authority and drew strong applause when she urged them to “begin right now to form a search group to look at the possibilities available.”
Alamosa County resident Claire Barker told the Commissioners that she has been watching the proposed new 80-mile high-voltage transmission line over La Veta Pass. She urged them to “look at the energy invasion and contemplate this place as a Valley.” “This is our Eisenhower Tunnel” Barker said, referring to the tunnel that spurred explosive growth in rural Summit County. Barker warned that, “5 industrial solar plants the size of Monte Vista could be here before we know it.”
The Saguache County Land Use Department will accept written comments on the solar proposal through Dec. 18th at:firstname.lastname@example.org. A copy of the Tessera preapplication can be downloaded at www.saguachecounty.net. The county will prepare a report for Tessera with a summary of the issues that need addressing. The company then has 30 days to respond and decide if it will submit a final application.