by Jason Anderson,
Saguache County Commissioner
The first, and biggest, blow to the development of solar energy projects in Saguache County came in December when commissioners learned that the Saguache County SolarReserve project had been terminated because the project did not obtain a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) from Xcel Energy.
The project, designed to establish a solar-thermal electric power facility in Saguache County, had received a 1041 land-use permit from the Saguache County Commissioners, and had obtained the land necessary to begin the project. A Power Purchase Agreement with Xcel Energy to buy power from SolarReserve was the last step in the process. When completed, the project planned to produce 125 megawatts of power with storage capacity into the evening hours. According to SolarReserve estimates, it would have created $900 million in economic benefits, produced 1500 jobs representing 1.5 million labor hours, and supplied 50 long-term jobs for the valley. Apparently, the main obstacle to the PPA was that the initial cost for electricity was higher than competitive supplies from coal, natural gas, and other forms of renewables such as wind. As a result, the project was not chosen by Xcel Energy when it submitted its preference list to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for supply options. The PUC is the governmental body that has the final say on what actions public utilities can take. The PUC must also take into account other factors of these projects such as economic benefit, water savings, and energy storage. Although the SolarReserve project was strong in these areas, and had a large support base, it still was not chosen. While SolarReserve has a right to appeal the decision to District Court, that is unlikely to cause a reversal of the decision.
A second disappointment came on our public lands last month. The BLM had designated a 1,064-acre area east of the town of Saguache, called De Tilla gulch, as a Solar Energy Zone (SEZ). This means it fit the requirements to establish a solar project while any environmental impacts could be offset. There were two of these Solar Energy Zones in the valley that went up for bid in October to companies interested in establishing a solar installation. No bids were received for these zones. The BLM has said they will review what the obstacles were in the bidding process and try again. For Saguache County, this news met with a mixed response. At this time, renewable energy projects on our public lands do not offer direct economic benefit to counties. There is legislation (H.R 596 Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act of 2013) that gives direct payment to counties with projects in their borders, and it would be preferable to Saguache County for that legislation to pass before our solar zone is developed.
On a smaller scale, Saguache County’s first solar garden, projected to begin construction this winter, was cancelled due to a change in Xcel Energy rules. The 500KW garden, which was planned to go onto the corner of a county gravel pit south of Saguache, would have provided energy offsets to the town. Saguache County had planned to be a subscriber and use 40% of the array to offset a portion of the county’s electric consumption. The other 60% would have been used by other entities in Saguache. The savings to the county was projected to be around 15% of electric costs over twenty years. Commissioners saw it as an opportunity to get a project on the ground, and to promote other projects to follow. The belief remains that renewable energy should be pursued, and that it holds high potential to improve our county’s economic situation.