by Ceal Smith
Saguache, CO – On December 11, citizens flooded into the historical Saguache County courtroom to have their say on what could be San Luis Valley’s first industrial solar energy generation plant.  While several solar 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.
Many of the more than 125 attendees were local ranchers and landowners, but business owners, doctors, scientists, engineers, educators, artists and environmentalists were also among the crowd—a reflection of the intense concern the project is generating.
County Board of Commissioners Spearman, Joseph and Pace convened the informal public meeting to gather input on Tessera’s 1041 permit preapplication to build a 200 MW facility on County Road T, eight miles southeast of the town of Saguache.
Tessera is proposing onsite assembly and installation of 8,000 – 40-foot SunCatcher Concentrated Solar Power units, each one driven by a hydrogen-fueled Stirling engine. The facility would require over 100 miles of roads and underground electrical lines as well as a new 320 kV substation and two, 2.4 million-gallon evaporation ponds.  The initial site is 1,525-acres with a 5,000-acre potential expansion area to the northwest.
According to neighboring landowners, the site is on intact range and wetlands in the area’s 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. They’ve been in operation since 1875. Other working cattle ranches surround the proposed site.
Consultant Nancy Lauro, with the Durango firm Russell Planning and Engineering, was hired to help the County with the 1041 permit process and facilitated the meeting.  Lauro told the audience “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 jobs and the tax revenue could be 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 40-foot tall circular mirrors”, “imagine the thousands and thousands of trucks on Hwy 17 and T Road mixed 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.”
Larry Ewing and his wife live closest to the proposed project site.  He questioned how well Tessera’s high-tech experimental technology would work in the harsh environment of the San Luis Valley.  “According to their own specs, these SunCatchers don’t work below 14 degrees or above 35 mile hour winds”, said Ewing. “On a day like today they could only operate between about 10am and 3pm.” “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 would 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 2-3 tons of insects a night.
A popular theme throughout the meeting was the preference for smaller scale community-based 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-wide 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 development in rural Summit County.  Barker warned that, “5 industrial solar plants the size of Monte Vista could be here before we know it.”
Tessera must meet all 19 of the 1041 Criteria for Decision to receive approval. Protection of the “natural and socio-economic environment”, adjacent water rights, wildlife habitat, endangered species, unique natural or historic resources, water quality and air quality were among the standards required.  Tessera must “adequately assess” “all reasonable alternatives” and present a “satisfactory program to mitigate and minimize adverse impacts”. The full list and preapplication can be downloaded at: www.saguachecounty.net.
The Commissioners have until January 15 to notify Tessera of additional issues that must be addressed.   The company then has 30 days to respond and decide if it will submit a final application.