by Matie Belle Lakish

It’s official! Tessera Solar North America announced the submittal of an official application to Saguache County for the first concentrated solar project in the San Luis Valley. Others are rumored to be close on its heels.

On July 1, Saguache County Land Use Office received the 1041 permit application to build 6000 SunCatchers on a 1525 acre tract about 5 miles west of Hwy. 17 on County Road T. The next step is for the three Saguache County Commissioners to determine that the application is “complete”. On July 20, Nancy Lauro of Russell Engineering, a consultant group which the Commissioners have hired to help them research the project, presented her summary of issues still needing completion while a room full of silent community members looked on. Richard Knox, Tessera spokesman, as well as a staff person from Ecosphere Environmental Services, a consultant for Tessera, were on hand to offer their perspective. Until the application is deemed to be “complete” and is officially “accepted” by Commissioners, citizens are not allowed to make any comments or ask any questions.

There is still considerable confusion over the process and timetable. Wendi Maez, Land Use Administrator, provided a flow chart with timetables to help. The first phase, determining the completeness of the application, has no fixed deadlines. Until the Commissioners are satisfied with it, the clock does not start ticking. Once it is deemed complete and accepted, the Commissioners have up to 60 days to set a hearing date, and another 30 days to request other agencies’ comments (Division of Wildlife, for example). During that time, the County will review any application revisions, agency comments, and public comments, and prepare a report for County consideration. After that, a public hearing (possibly two) will be held on the project to present the staff report, allow for applicant presentation, take public comments, and make a decision. It is likely to take up to 90 days for the entire process.

Copies of Tessera’s application can be downloaded from the Saguache County website, or a CD can be requested from Janet Wolf at Ecosphere Environmental Services at 970-382-7256 or wolf@ecosphere-services.com. However, since it is

still likely to change, you may want to wait until it is deemed to be “complete”.

Nancy Lauro brought a 13 page list of topics the Commissioners might want to consider asking for more information, including such general information as a detail of the site. Although the hard copy of the document takes up a four-inch thick notebook, it was obvious from the discussion that much of the information presented was very generic in nature, and not specific to the Valley or to the Saguache County site. When asked about some of these issues, Richard Knox defended the entries by referring to the facility Tessera is building in Califonia.

Among the concerns Crestone residents have raised was sound. Although Tessera conducted a noise study, as requested by the County, which reportedly passed without a need for mitigation, Lauro pointed out several possible deficiencies in that study. For instance, the study failed to address Colorado State Statute noise regulations, and only dealt with the County’s Solar Guidelines. Some noise levels were measured at 70DBA but reported only at 65DBA. No references were made to construction noises. Noise was measured at residences but not at property lines. Noise from hydrogen generators was not addressed. In short, a number of issues were not fully assessed.

In all, 22 topics were listed as needing more complete analysis or a more complete treatment in the application. They included Visual Impact, Water Use/Rights, Stormwater/Grading, Irrigation, Transmission/Substations, Agricultural Impacts, Light, Wildlife, Construction and Maintenance Impacts, Roads/Access, Economic/Fiscal Impact, Reclamation, Bond/Security, Air/Dust pollution, Groundwater quality, Geotechnical Study, Consideration of Alternative Sites, Electromagnetic Energy Impacts, Heat/Climate Change, Function of Equipment and Neighborhood Compatibility/Buffering.

For example, a discussion of road issues showed that Tessera had not adequately considered the impacts of traffic on the unpaved County Road T. Randy Arredondo, County Road and Bridge Supervisor did a traffic count on that section of road and reported that there are currently 63.6 passes per day, compared to 800 passes per day projected once the Tessera project begins. Yet nothing more than dust abatement was mentioned in the application.

At this point, all three of the County Commissioners have had an opportunity to visit the Maricopa, Arizona site as promised by Knox at an earlier visit. He was asked about his promise to provide a bus for local citizens to visit the site. He said that Tessera is prepared to provide an expense paid tour bus for local citizens. No number of participants was specifically mentioned, but a time in September is projected. He provided the name of a contact for setting up that tour.

It is interesting to note that Richard Knox asked four times if the community really wanted this project. No one seemed to know what to make of his question. He mentioned several times, when asked about the generic quality of the studies, whether it made economic sense to invest in site-specific studies if the application was going to be denied. At the end, he specifically asked the Commissioners whether they were inclined to approve the project. Although Mike Spearman did not answer, Sam Pace said he “couldn’t say no, or yes, at this time.” Linda Joseph said, “I can’t say until we have all the information.”

Ultimately, Knox agreed to provide the more detailed level of analysis that was requested and Nancy Lauro was asked to work with the staff at Ecosphere to come up with the more detailed level of analysis that the Commissioners have requested. No specific timeframe for this updated information was identified that I can recall, but I suspect we will hear more next month.