Monday, November 22, 2010

Colorado’s Big Solar Full of Holes

Released Monday, Nov. 20, 2010. Saguache, CO ~ Colorado’s first industrial solar energy project has run into fierce opposition from San Luis Valley ranchers, biologists and community members who say the project will destroy Saguache County’s centennial ranching sector, as many as 800-acres of wetland habitat and the regions world-class wildlife and tourism values.  Tessera Solar is proposing to build a 1,525-acre 145 Megawatt (MW) field of 5,670 dish Stirling SunCatchers on rangelands in southern Colorado’s high-elevation San Luis Valley for export to Front Range urban centers.   The plant would be almost 20 times the size of the Valley’s largest solar plant, the 8.2 MW SunEdison photovoltaic solar farm completed just north of Alamosa in 2007

The San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance (SLVRCA) filed an open records request with Saguache County for documents related to Tessera’s permit application, that members say reveals many holes in the Tessera Solar application.  “Tessera has no experience with industrial projects of this scale”, said Alliance member and adjacent property owner Dawn Anderson, also an Environmental Protection Specialist for the State.  “Their 1.5 MW, 60-unit demonstration plant installed 9 months ago in an industrial zone in Maricopa, AZ, has little resemblance to this massive industrial proposal in our high alpine rural Valley” said Anderson, “you can see it in the lack of details in their application”.

In response to the preliminary application filed late last year, the Saguache County filed a feasibility report with a list of information the county needed to determine the scope of the project’s impacts.   Ten months later, Tessera still has not submitted much of the requested information.  Instead, the company and its contractor Ecosphere Environmental Services, headquartered in Durango, have worked to convince county, state and federal agencies to back down from a whole host of regulatory and mitigation requirements.

In July, the county’s consultant Nancy Lauro expressed frustration in an email reporting on a meeting with Ecosphere, “they continue to argue about everything and do not seem very willing to provide much more detail or propose any potential mitigation measures.”

In an October letter, Tessera’s permit manager Richard Knox told the County, “Once a PPA [Power Purchase Agreement] is negotiated … I think you will see more resources thrown at it – so we are taking measured steps along this path that reduce risk for as many stakeholders as possible."  Knox concludes that the requested Site Plan, Lighting Plan, Construction Phasing Plan and visual mitigation measures “are not available at this time”, but that “Following project approval … Tessera Solar would prepare a Plan… that fully describes the facility and the phasing required accomplishing complete build out.” 

“In other words”, said SLVRCA member Ceal Smith, “Tessera is saying to the citizens of Saguache County - ‘trust us - approve our permit, then we’ll tell you what the impacts will be’”.

“Tessera has made a mockery of the Permitting Process and Solar Guidelines by refusing to provide the Commissioners with critical information needed to make an informed decision,” said Julie Sullivan, co-owner of Blue Range Ranch, a certified organic grass-fed beef ranch adjacent to the proposed solar plant.  “Impacts on the watershed, water quality, wetlands, roads, air quality and a whole slew of other impacts are simply unknown and probably unknowable with the unprecedented scale and scope of this project.”

Especially worrisome is Tessera’s dismissal of impacts with potentially catastrophic consequences.  “Tessera discounts the risks from the on-site production of hydrogen – an extremely flammable, explosive element”, say’s Anderson, “the company has never produced hydrogen on-site before”. The application simply concludes, “The potential fire or explosion risks for hydrogen storage and use at the site is not significant". 

Noise from the 5,670 Stirling engine driven SunCatchers is one of the most contentious issues.  After repeated appeals from community members, the Commissioners approved an independent review of Tessera’s noise study that revealed Tessera erred in underestimating noise impacts.  Controversy is also swirling around Ecosphere’s attempt to reclassify up to 800-acres of National Inventory Wetlands and commandeer the Army Corp of Engineers in their efforts to avoid compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act.

“We hope in the end the Commissioners will move beyond the haze of fictional dollars, jobs and carbon emission reductions to the reality of this precedent-setting industrial disaster in the making and heed the publics call for more responsible solar development”, said Smith.

The Renewable Communities Alliance advocates for smaller scale distributed renewable energy generation that it says is more cost-effective, efficient, faster to install and avoids the huge environmental and transmission costs that remote centralized industrial solar impose.  “There is a better way to do solar”, says Smith, also member of the group Solar Done Right, “and this isn’t it.”

Two Tessera Solar projects were recently approved through a fast-track process on federal lands in California.  One, the 700 MW Imperial Valley project, is facing a court challenge over impacts to sensitive cultural and biological resources.  A third Tessera proposal in Marfa, Texas was cancelled earlier this year when it failed to get financing.

Citizens will have a final chance to express their concerns at a public hearing on Dec. 6th at the County Seat Courthouse in Saguache, CO starting at 2 pm.

Related Links:

Listen and view SunCatchers
SLVRCA Comment to Saguache County on Tessera
Community Power
Focus on Big holding back Solar in US