by Matie Belle Lakish
The world-wide debate over how best to capture and use the sun’s energy, whether in large-scale projects far from the site of use or smaller-scale installations that service nearby users, was reflected in Saguache County’s official Public Hearing on the SolarReserve (SR) application. SolarReserve’s Saguache Solar Energy Project is a large-scale Power Tower-type project with a 656’ tower surrounded by mirrors that would focus the sun’s rays on the top of the tower, where a molten solution of sodium and potassium nitrate could absorb the heat and save it for up to several hours of the night. The molten nitrate solution would then give up its heat to create steam, which would be used to run a conventional-style generator to create electricity. In this way, the heat from the sun would be stored for use after dark.
Saguache County Commissioners scheduled the hearing for the Auditorium at Center’s school so it would be convenient for Center residents to participate. However, attendance by local residents was light, and a number of Crestone residents made the trip to submit comments at the hearing, which ran from 2pm to nearly 8pm. County Attorney Ben Gibbons officiated.
Nancy Lauro, of Summit Engineering, based in Durango, offered a summary of issues and recommendations that she was submitting to the commissioners for further review and possible action, those can be found on the Saguache County website at www.saguachecounty.net under SolarReserve Staff Report. Among the issues she identified was visual impact, by far the most often mentioned
by the public, and one that she said is in conflict with the Saguache County Master Plan’s vision to Preserve Open Space and Habitat. Impacts on wildlife, especially on birds and bats, and the safety of the sodium and potassium nitrate, were also identified. Some of these, such as the safety of hazardous materials, had been investigated by Lauro, and others were recommended for further study or required further response from SolarReserve.
SolarReserve representatives came from California to answer questions. CEO of SolarReserve, Kevin Smith, has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University. Bill Gould, the Technology Officer, is also a Mechanical Engineer, and led the team that built the prototype of power tower technology for Rocketdyne. That project was commissioned by the Department of Energy in the 1990’s. Adam Green, who has been the firm’s representative in the Valley, was present, as well as other members of their team.
A sample of questions from the public are as follows, with answers by SolarReserve, unless otherwise specified:
Safety of nitrate salts: Lauro consulted with other experts (not identified) on the topic and received comments that reassured her of the safety. For instance, “The information provided is accurate and with conditions can be a safe use of chemicals in this situation.” Conditions referred to were not specified at the hearing. SolarReserve engineers contend that even if taken to temperatures of 1500 degrees, the nitrate salt “doesn’t explode, doesn’t burn.”
Water use: The land proposed is currently agricultural, and as such has used 8,800 acre/feet/year of water in the past. SolarReserve’s use will be only about 150 acre/feet/year, primarily for washing mirrors. SolarReserve will purchase senior surface water rights, go through water court to get a change of use, convey the water to the site through pipes, then, depending upon need, may put it in the ground for later use. This is reported to be an acceptable augmentation under Colorado water law.
Tower lighting/glint and glare: The tower will be minimally lighted, enough to comply with FFA regulations. Lights will be flashing at night to warn away planes and birds. Glint and glare will not be significant at ground level, however, may be an issue on the sides of the valley at higher elevations. No mitigations could be found for this issue.
Impacts on properties close by: Within a mile, visual impacts of the tower will be great. Within 5 miles, less so, but still significant. Outside of five miles, SolarReserve expects the impacts to be less than significant. Unfortunately, the Great Sand Dunes National Park was under a change of directorship, and comments from the park were not received during the comment period.
Power Purchase Agreement: There is no PPA as of yet. This is reportedly difficult to get until a company has a permit to build. Asked if the power would go out of the valley, SolarReserve representatives said that power will go into the grid through the 230 KV line that adjoins the property. Representatives implied that power could be used in the valley, or by anyone drawing on it from outside. Power may be purchased by one or more entities. Xcel and Black Hills Electric have been mentioned in the past. Previously, commissioners had made approval of a permit conditional on having a Power Purchase Agreement, but that has not been mentioned recently.
Jobs: SolarReserve submitted a description of their anticipated employment needs. They predict employing 450 persons at peak of construction, 250 on average, and 50 for ongoing operations after construction. That is per tower. Should transmission capacity increase, they hope to build a second tower with accompanying mirrors, and anticipate similar employment needs for the second facility.
Some of the Public Comments on the proposed project can be summarized as follows.
1) Many comments reflected a preference for smaller distributed projects that would provide power locally, and without the massive impacts that are expected with this project. Solar placed on rooftops and in Solar Gardens are reported to be more efficient, quicker to implement, and more cost effective.
2) Adjacent or close landowners were united in opposition to the proposal and stated that it would negatively impact their property values.
3) Several persons expressed concern that the commissioners needed more expert legal counsel and scientific expertise to evaluate a project of this size and complexity.
4) Studies on the impacts on birds, bats, and wildlife were inadequate and should be redone. The study on birds was limited to species and numbers of birds found on that sight during a limited time frame in the past, and did not address possible impacts to birds flying through the solar field. Bats were barely mentioned, even though Suzanne Ewy, of Orient Land Trust, noted that the Mexican Freetail Bats which live in the Orient Mine make millions of flights per year through the area.
5) Local employment and job training was deemed to be inadequately described. Further commitment to local hiring was requested.
6 ) De-commissioning at the end of the project was not adequately addressed.
7) A number of citizens from Center spoke in favor of the project, citing the jobs that would be available, and the problems that young people have in finding work close to home. Agricultural land is being taken out of production, and this project is seen as a way to replace some of those jobs.
8) Two citizens said this is a much better alternative to energy production than coal and gas-fired generators, and this would improve our carbon footprint.
Following the public comment part of the hearing, commissioners mentioned a number of areas that they felt were inadequately addressed. These included Spearman’s concern about employment, tourism and de-commissioning, Joseph had concerns about the appearance of the tower, whether housing would be provided for out-of-area workers, and what training and equipment would be offered for emergency volunteers. Pace asked about a reclamation bond. They asked Nancy Lauro to further investigate and report back to the board.
At the close of the Public Hearing, County Attorney Ben Gibbons announced that the commissioners were not prepared to make a decision on the application at that time. Nancy Lauro told commissioners that their options, according to the 1041 process, were to continue the review process for up to 60 days, or up to 120 days with the applicant’s approval. The continuance is to allow for additional time to answer questions or develop conditions.
Commissioners continued their work on the application throughout the month of February. Nancy Lauro presented the board with a list of 32 possible conditions for the project. Commissioners also looked at concerns around local jobs, tourism, decommissioning of the project and a reclamation bond. For a list of the 32 conditions and other relevant information, please see the Staff Report on the front page of the Saguache County Website,
Mike Spearman, who is the new Chairman of the Board, submitted an employment proposal for discussion. In their proposal, SolarReserve committed to providing a one-time $200,000 cash grant for training local citizens for jobs the firm will be offering, and to hiring 40% of the 50 operations employees locally, or pay a one-time fine of $50,000 for each 10% shortfall. No mention was made of hiring local employees during the construction phase, nor was there any commitment to hire local workers after the fine was paid. Spearman, who represents most of the Town of Center, suggested a counter proposal requiring a graduated fine of $50,000 for each 5% shortfall in county hiring. Since 40% of 50 operations jobs is only 20 workers, it seems this would be easy to achieve. He also wants quotas for construction workers, suggesting 67% of overall employment should be workers from the San Luis Valley. Fines would be graduated at $5,000/month for each 5% below that level. Worker counts would be taken as a three-month average.
Spearman also proposed a reclamation and de-commissioning bond that is more stringent than the one proposed by SolarReserve, which offered a reclamation bond of $1 million after one year of operation for the demolition of the tower. At the end of 10 years, they would offer a second million, and at the end of 20 years, a total of $10 million. Spearman’s proposal is for $1 million at the start of construction, a second million at 5 years, which would be accompanied by a 5 year county review of the project, and an increase to a $5 million bond at year 10, and $10 million at year 20.
Tourism is an important and growing part of Saguache County’s economic development, and Spearman sees this project as a potential tourist attraction. He, therefore, asked for funds for tourism development, including a visitor center with information on the project and other local attractions, tours of the facility, and an informational kiosk in the Town of Center. The county would put up road signage to direct visitors to the facility. It is hoped that tourism efforts would employ at least a few additional local people. SolarReserve, however, has proposed a one-time $100,000 payment for a visitor center, but with no future support for maintenance, staffing, or on-going expenses. Discussions on these topics continue.
Assessor Jackie Stephens met with Commissioners to clarify the tax income the County would receive from the project. Stephens said that the land is currently zoned agricultural, the lowest assessed category, as ag land taxes are based on production. The tax category will change to industrial only under the portions being constructed, until the facility is operational, at which time taxing will be taken over by the state and the county will be reimbursed according to a state formula on sales of power. A conservative estimate of income to county entities is $417,000 per 100 MW unit, but there could be a multi-year lag in tax funds availability.
SolarReserve representatives expressed a willingness to continue working with commissioners to answer their questions or develop further agreements, and committed to providing more information on employment expectations, job training, development of tourism, and reclamation bonding and decommissioning of the facility at the end of its useful life.
SolarReserve agreed to pay for commissioners to visit a similar project that SolarReserve is building in Tonapah, Nevada. At present, only the slightly shorter tower, which is still under construction, will be available to view. After their last scheduled meeting in Saguache, the three announced that a joint visit would be made to the facility. They will also meet with commissioners from that Nevada county.