Adjacent landowner Stacey Cook looks to state-owned land north of Interstate 70 and east of Grand Junction Regional Airport and sees a property that attracts trespassing campers, people dumping refuse and setting illegal fires, using drugs and causing other problems.
“It’s gotten very dangerous. It’s just out of control,” said Cook about conditions on the State Land Board acreage just to the east of his land. His property is home in part to the separately owned Grand Junction Motor Speedway.
Now, Cook is hopeful about the future of the neighboring land due to a proposal to build a large-scale solar-power project there under a lease with the state.
Importantly to him, among other things, the project would be surrounded by a security fence. Though solar panels have a visual impact, he thinks the project would be a vast improvement over the current situation.
“With that being cleaned up, I think it will be a much better visual picture for people traveling down I-70,” he said. “I think it’s a good project for out here, and I think it will be an asset.”
The project proposal is being put forward by SolarGen of Colorado and envisions a 48-megawatt facility that would entail solar panels on about 150 acres of a 280-acre parcel leased from the state. SolarGen has a planning lease but could pursue a production lease should it clear hurdles such as obtaining permit approvals, including from Mesa County.
According to Carmine Iadarola, founder and CEO of SolarGen, a megawatt of power is enough to serve the needs of about 300 homes in America.
“We’re just hopeful that we can provide the energy that’s needed to help meet the renewable energy mandates by the state and move forward with the project,” he said.
According to written project materials from SolarGen, Colorado, as the first state to enact a renewable energy portfolio standard, “remains a prime candidate for solar development with a stated goal of every utility across the state becoming carbon-free by 2050.”
Ken Scissors, co-chair of the Grand Valley Cleantech Business Coalition, is excited about the prospect of such a large-scale project coming to a county that has seen solar development limited to smaller projects and rooftop panels up to now.
“This could be the project everyone’s been hoping for and waiting for, that maybe could show the industrial-scale solar world that this (county) is a viable location to do business,” he said.
Sean Norris, manager of the Mesa County Planning Department, said SolarGen’s project is the largest solar project the county has in front of it as an application.
“We’ve spoken with some trade association representatives who have indicated that, due to the current administration’s push for a lot of solar opportunities and utility-scale solar farms, we may see applications for similar-size or maybe even larger” projects, he said.
Iadarola said many companies like to be associated with such renewable-energy projects as he’s been involved with, and with some wanting to buy only renewable power, a lack of large-scale local renewable energy production can be a strike against an area in terms of attracting businesses.
But he’s careful to acknowledge the impacts of solar power as well.
“Solar is not God’s gift to man. Like everything, it has its positives and it has its negatives. It’s a piece of the puzzle for the infrastructure for Grand Junction,” he said.
ADDRESSING GLARE CONCERNS
SolarGen is seeking a conditional use permit from the county for the project. The county Planning Commission first considered the matter in April, and is due to resume consideration of it at its meeting on Thursday. It heard in April from four neighbors of the state property who voiced various concerns about the project.
One of them is Mike Lowenstein, who told The Sentinel this week that his main concern, as someone who in his younger years was a private pilot, is the potential for the solar panels to reflect sunlight into pilots’ eyes in the area of the airport.
He remembers challenges during his flying days with glare when looking to land at the airport with the sun low in the sky in the late afternoon, and he wants the company to do computer modeling to evaluate the possibility for sun reflection impacting pilots if the project is built.
“If there isn’t any (reflection problem), then I have no objection to them doing it,” Lowenstein said.
The airport hasn’t taken a position for or against the project, but has asked for a glare/reflectivity analysis to be done in connection with it.
“Where that project is proposed, it’s in the flight path, the approach flight path for Runway 29. It’s always important to us that we understand the impact to pilots potentially, but in this case it’s critical,” said Angela Padalecki, the airport’s executive director.
SolarGen has committed to such an analysis once final design has been completed but prior to construction. It says the project can’t move forward without the airport and Federal Aviation Administration indicating it presents no safety risk.
Padalecki said if analysis shows a problem, the airport and developer would need to work together to figure out how to mitigate it.
“This is a normal path for these types of projects when they’re near airports,” she said.
She said the airport appreciates when developers come to the airport early in the planning stage, as SolarGen did. She said the airport want to figure out how to work with projects rather than put up barriers to them, and it’s easier to do that early on in planning rather than later asking for plans to be changed.
SolarGen says it doesn’t anticipate the panels will produce glint or glare problems, as they are built with dark, light-absorbing materials and covered with an anti-reflective coating. Tiny indentations in the panel glass further lessen the light that is reflected, the company says.
It says about a fifth of public airports in the country have installed on-site solar panels, with Denver International Airport being among them.
Said Padalecki, “That’s something we hope that we can pursue in the future, is a potential solar project at the airport.”
She said the facility is in the middle of a planning study to inform development at the airport. In some areas there, the highest and best use may be a building such as a hangar, but in some areas, such as those that are noisy due to takeoffs and landings but wouldn’t pose reflectivity issues, solar panels might be a good use of land that otherwise might go unused, she said.
Lowenstein said other than the glare concern, he has no other objection to the proposed solar panels “other than the fact that they’re ugly, but some things you can’t help.”
He said not much can be done about how the panels look, not to mention the visual impact of the power lines associated with them.
“If they were going to put up a wind farm, we’d have a real fight on our hands. They’re not only ugly, they’re dangerous, and they make noise and they’re absolutely as ugly as anything can be,” he said.
SolarGen believes the project will not be visible to most of the area residents living south of I-70. It plans to use landscaping and screening on fencing to minimize visual impacts, including for highway motorists.
According to Iadarola, SolarGen is looking at both Xcel Energy and Grand Valley Power as potential points of interconnection for the project’s electricity generation, but SolarGen can’t immediately speak to Grand Valley Power because of contractual provisions.
In the case of Xcel, SolarGen sees its project as helping that utility in its pursuit of more renewable energy supplies.
Iadarola said a benefit of the project is that it wouldn’t take land out of agricultural production.
“We particularly like this site because it has no water and it has no infrastructure,” he said. “… We plan to make this a piece of productive land and we don’t need any water, we don’t need any sewer (service).”
Like Cook, SolarGen points to how a solar farm could address concerns with what’s occurring on the now-vacant property.
“This area has experienced vagrancy issues,” said Kristin Kemp, a board spokeswoman.
She said the board owns more than 3 million acres spanning the state and has just 45 employees, and relies on its leaseholders for day-to-day oversight of the land.
While 98% of its lands are leased for purposes such as agricultural use, mineral development and renewable energy production, the majority proposed for the solar project atypically hasn’t been previously leased, making stewarding it more of a challenge, she said.
“We are glad that SolarGen now has a planning lease on this parcel and can regularly monitor the property,” she said.
FUNDS FOR SCHOOLS
Solar power production would mean more money for education in Colorado from State Land Board revenues. The board has been the primary source of the Department of Education’s Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program, which provides competitive capital construction grants to schools.
SolarGen estimates that if its project goes forward, it could generate $300,000 in annual revenues for the board and education.
Distribution of those revenues isn’t linked to where they are generated, which is a good thing in Mesa County’s case. It has only about 1,300 acres of state trust lands, but county schools still have received more than $20 million in BEST grants.
The SolarGen project could considerably add to renewable energy projects, which now generate about 300 megawatts of energy, most from wind power.
Colorado and some other states have continued to be owed land from the federal government that was not received at statehood, Kemp said.
Some of that debt has been settled since, including by land transfers by the BLM. The State Land Board is continuing to work with the BLM to settle remaining debt, Kemp said.
A 36-inch-diameter Ute Water Conservancy District water line crosses the property proposed for the solar project and was under a right-of-way agreement with the BLM.
When the property transferred to the state, Ute never obtained an easement. Ute Water and the State Land Board have been discussing this oversight, which could potentially be addressed through a new agreement.
However, SolarGen plans to accommodate the pipeline and an electricity line that cross the property.