by Matie Belle Lakish

SolarReserve representative Adam Green is asking local government representatives and citizens to contact the governor’s office and propose that Gov. Hickenlooper ask PUC directors to request that Xcel sign a 25-year contract to buy energy from SolarReserve (SR). This would help Xcel meet their 30% Renewable Energy Standard required by the State of Colorado, and allow SolarReserve to begin construction on their proposed Power-Tower project that is slated to be built in Saguache County about 6 miles from Center.

The project, which was approved by Saguache County Commissioners last year, has been held up by the lack of a Power Purchase Agreement. Green said that Xcel had selected a competitor’s CSP project in the San Luis Valley in 2009, but that negotiations over a contract had not succeeded, and that the other project appears to have fallen through. Green, the Project Developer, presented his request to representatives of local governments, water advocates, and interested citizens.

As approved by commissioners, the project would generate 100 Megawatts (MW) of power and cover an area approximately 1500 acres, or 1.6 miles in diameter. The tower, projected to be 656 feet high, would absorb heat from mirrors aimed at a receiver atop the tower and store the energy in molten potassium and sodium nitrate salts. The salts could hold enough heat to run a generator for up to 12 hours after the sun goes down, making the storage feature important to farms and homes that require power after dark.

The proposed project would displace 39 irrigation circles and save 8800 acre-feet of well-water, 6300 of which is “consumptive”. This could make a significant dent in the number of irrigation circles that are mandated to be taken out of production in the valley to help preserve groundwater. Commissioner Ken Anderson estimates this project alone would meet one-quarter of the acreage requirement. Only 150 acre-feet of water are projected to be used by the project, and SR has made arrangements to purchase surface water and convey it to the project, where it will be stored underground for use as needed.

A positive for Saguache County would be jobs. A similar project by SR is currently being constructed near Tonopah, Nevada. Currently there are 460 workers on the project with a projected 600 to 700 at peak. Green states that there will be 50 long-term jobs created in Saguache County, with skill levels ranging from top managers to mirror washers. SR has pledged $200,000 to provide training to local workers to improve their skills. In the 1041 Permit with Saguache County, SR committed to hiring 40% of the 50 long-term jobs from Saguache County, as well as making commercially reasonable efforts to hire San Luis Valley residents during the construction phase. Mike Gibson of the Rio Grande Conservation Roundtable expressed a concern that SR might not find an adequate number of workers who could pass a drug and alcohol test, to which Adam Green responded that passing such a test could be a requirement.

As agricultural land, the site now brings in $30,000 in taxes to the county. As industrial property, it would bring in $425,000 annually to county coffers.

Questions remain, however, about the projects’ impacts to birds.  The application does not specifically address birds that fly into the field of mirrors, nor provide specific mitigations for such. Green says, “What we did is commit to work with the relevant agencies to produce such a plan in advance of construction, which is the same step we’ve taken on federal land in Nevada and on private land in California.” In many respects, this is unknown territory, since there have been no projects of this size built in areas known to be significant flyways, such as the San Luis Valley. Attendees also expressed concern with the chemical-laden evaporation ponds as attractants to birds, especially as many traditional wetlands have dried up in the drought.

Construction at the Tonopah facility is being directed by ACS Cobra, a Spanish firm that built multiple facilities in Spain, including over 50 megawatts of power towers and hundreds of megawatts of other solar projects. ACS Cobra is providing both expertise as a contractor and investors for the project. While the cost of construction makes the cost of the power seem prohibitive at the moment, Green said that once the project is constructed the power plant can be run at a very low cost for the next 30 years, the expected life of the facility, because the fuel source is free. This “insures against volatility” of power prices over that 30-year period. At the end of the 30 years, the facility could be renovated and continue working, if it is desirable.

Asked if a new power line was necessary to carry power to market, Green said there is adequate transmission capacity for the first 100 MW project. If a second tower and array is to be built, it would need new transmission lines, which would take at least 10 years to complete.

Green is asking local elected officials and representatives to send letters to the governor and PUC in support of the project. He is stressing that the project provides energy security, jobs for valley residents, greater protection for the environment than coal- or gas-fired plants, and insulation from rises in fuel prices. SolarReserve can provide energy storage, a reduction in risk since it has already been permitted, and significant water conservation. No new transmission lines are needed at the moment, as transmission is available next to the site.

Letters can be sent to Governor John Hickenlooper at 136 State Capital, Denver, CO. 80203-1792. Adam Green can be contacted at adam.green@solarreserve.com.