Large-scale facility with 656 ft. high towers proposed for Center area

by Matie Belle Lakish

The above diagram gives a basic breakdown of the inner workings of how clean electrical power is generated in the molten salt towers. To see the diagram in color, and for more information, go to their website at


Saguache County Commissioners set the Public Hearing for the SolarReserve’s power tower generating proposal for February 2, from 2-8pm, at the Center School Auditorium. Public comments are now being accepted for the project, and can be submitted in writing until 3pm on Thursday, January 26. Comments may either be emailed to Wendi Maez at or mailed to Saguache County Land Use at P.O. Box 326, Saguache, CO 81149.

The proposed solar electric generating facility would consist of two, 100-megawatt projects, each consisting of a 656 ft. tower surrounded by approximately 2000 acres of heliostats, or reflective concave mirrors, that would reflect sunlight onto a central receiver at the top of the tower where molten sodium and potassium nitrate are circulating. Heat would be collected and stored in the molten nitrate salts, which would then transfer the heat to a generator where power would be produced. The project would to be sited next to the major 230 kilovolt (kV) transmission line so that power can be transmitted to locations outside the Valley. At this time, SolarReserve does not have a power purchase agreement, but is actively seeking an agreement with Xcel or Tri-State to buy the power.

Saguache County Land Use Department is the County department working most closely with SolarReserve. The application has been posted to the Saguache County website and can be accessed by typing Solar Reserve into the Search box at the upper left of the website, Nancy Lauro, of Russell Engineering of Durango, has once more been engaged to assist Saguache County Commissioners in the 1041 process, and she has already submitted a list of questions to be addressed by the applicant.

The SolarReserve application is long, with 57 different sections or entries. Most of them are visual simulations, maps, diagrams, or studies on various topics by contracted groups. The real application, and the most informative document for most people, is #55, the Final 1041 Permit Application. This is the actual document that Solar Reserve is required to submit to the County, and it has many headings and sub-headings in its 101 pages. There are also more detailed reports on topics of interest to citizens in the other 54 sections of the application. These include a number of computer-generated visual simulations of the two towers and heliostats from various locations in the county, studies done by independent groups on a number of topics such as sound and noise, birds and wildlife, nitrate salts, geology, FAA regulations, soil types, and numerous other topics that the public had expressed an interest in knowing more about when SolarReserve presented their Preliminary Application in 2010.

As I read through several of the reports, one thing became clear: this type of project has never been done before. Many questions were answered with computer modeling. All the views of the tower, for instance, are computer simulations. Bird impact studies are based on very limited real experience with projects of a similar type combined with much modeling. The sections dealing with the sodium and potassium nitrate salts gave the example of the much smaller three-year pilot project done at Sandia National Laboratory that used a similar, but not exact, type of salt combination to collect and transfer heat. This would truly be a pilot project.

The 656 foot tower would definitely change the nighttime skyline. Several lights, both blinking and steady, will be necessary to bring the towers into FAA compliance. Since the towers will be close to the airport, there may be some impacts to aviation.

The tower will be massive, and it will be surrounded by a container wall that will be able to catch and hold the molten salts should there be an emergency that would cause the salts to escape. I found the section on Geotechnical Feasibility interesting, and this quote by Ninyo & Moore insightful: “Due to the anticipated, relatively shallow depth of groundwater at the project site and the unconsolidated, saturated, poorly graded, fine-grained nature of the on-site soils, it is our opinion that liquefaction will be a design concern and should be studied in detail during de-sign-level evaluations.” How well this has been done is a question that deserves to be asked.

At the public hearing on the Preliminary Application that was held in 2010, a number of Center residents spoke to the need for economic development in the town. Since this project is close to Center, that town will be impacted more than northern areas of the county. There is an extensive section in the 1041 application on the economic impacts that are expected and the job opportunities likely to be available. Approximately 250 to 300 jobs will be filled over the 30-month course of construction, with about 50 ongoing positions once construction is complete. Some specialty areas will be contracted out, and SolarReserve anticipates that many specialized positions will require recruiting workers from other areas. However, a number of skilled and unskilled construction positions will be available for local workers, and a job fair will be held in Center. The company also hopes to work with Trinidad State Junior College and Adams State College to develop training programs. They anticipate the skilled wage to be about $40/hr.

Revenues for the County are also an area of interest, especially to the county commissioners and local governments that are looking at losses in tax revenues as a result of the drying up of agricultural lands. Farmers who have relied on well water to irrigate may have to retire their land, which will mean less spending at local businesses and less revenue for school and County budgets. Projects such as SolarReserve’s could moderate those losses.

A Development Agreement has been submitted to commissioners by SolarReserve, and, although it had not been posted at press time, should be available on the website by January 2. Commissioners will hold a work session on January 17 to discuss it. The work session, although open to the public, will not be an opportunity for the public to talk. A time has not yet been set. Please check the website or call the Land Use office for further information.