Monday, January 9, 2012

Who will control our solar energy future: people or corporations?

Two key decisions lay before our federal and county elected officials that will greatly influence the energy future of Saguache County, the San Luis Valley and Colorado.  We urge people throughout the San Luis Valley and Colorado to let the BLM and Saguache BOCC know which vision of our energy future you would like to see come to bear (details at the end of the post).

The San Luis Valley, CO has been in the national spotlight recently as one of the "coolest" hot spots for solar energy generation.  Since around 2005, plenty of corporate solar energy developers have lined up to exploit the valley's cool sun and high generation values for private profit. 

What most don't realize is that the people who make the San Luis Valley their home have been quietly stoking a different, more democratic, grassroots solar paradigm, going back more than a quarter of a century.

In the mid 1980's the Solar Energy Research Institute  -- now the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colo. -- credited the San Luis Valley with inspiring "an explosion in solar energy resulting in perhaps the highest per capita concentration of solar installations in the country."

The early San Luis Valley solar innovators knew what many are just beginning to discover: locally owned clean energy is the path to true energy independence and lasting prosperity that benefits real people and communities.

From: Community Power by Al Weinrub
John Farrell, with the Energy Self-Reliant States Project recently recognized Gainsville, Florida "among the world leaders in solar installed per capita", beating out Japan, France China and California with a whopping 36 kW for each of its 125,000 residents.

When the 30 MW Cogentrix facility goes online in April, the Valley will generate 1.78 kW of solar energy for each of its 50,000 residents.  An impressive beginning given that the average household PV system is 2-10 kW.  This is enough electricity to power 100% of the San Luis Valley's average daytime demand (on paper, more than 2/3 is exported, but the laws of physics dictate that the solar electrons be consumed at the closest point of demand).  

As the Valley faces critical energy issues, such as the need for a $.5 billion new transmission line or whether or not to approve massive, industrial power plant proposals like Tessera Solar's failed 200 MW dish Stirling proposal and the 656-foot tall power tower, 4,000-acre facility currently under review in Saguache County, a grand opportunity is being overlooked by all but a handful of local energy visionaries.

The San Luis Valley's geographic isolation, extraordinary solar resource and abundant solar generation puts it in the unique position to become the nations first energy independent region and a model for every community in Colorado. 

The little village of Wildpoldsried, Germany is a harbinger of what the San Luis Valley could become.   In less than a decade and a half, the town installed enough renewable energy to produce 321% of its local energy needs – and it’s generating $5.7 million (US) in annual revenue by selling the excess back to the grid.

The key to Wildpoldsried's success is local ownership.  

The town's local energy initiative was launched in 1997 when the village council made the decision to build new industries, keep initiatives local and bring in new revenue.

Over the next 14 years, the community equipped nine new community buildings with solar panels, built four biogas digesters (with a fifth underway) and installed seven windmills. In the village itself, 190 private households have solar panels.  The district also benefits from three small hydro power plants, ecological flood control, and a natural waste water system.

Here in the San Luis Valley, outside corporate and government powers have a different plan.  Rather than maximizing local benefits, they are proposing the same export dependent economic "development" model that has kept the San Luis Valley in poverty for decades.

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to open over 111,000 acres of public land in the San Luis Valley to corporate solar development for massive centralized solar power plants that dwarf the small, distributed SunEdison, Iberdrola, Cogentrix and SunPower utility installations in Alamosa County (for a critique of the BLM plan see the Wrong from the Start report produced by Solar Done Right). 

There is no doubt that these projects will provide limited tax revenue and sorely needed, but temporary construction jobs.  But they also pave the way for 90% of the economic value of solar energy to flow straight out of the Valley into the hands of absentee corporate owners and investors.

Will the people and communities of the San Luis Valley really prosper by laying out the red carpet for industry to collect the gold at the end of our solar rainbow?  Or is it time for real bottom-up economic development that allows San Luis Valley property owners, farmers, ranchers, small businesses and communities to reap the benefits from local solar generation? 

Despite many obstacles, a brave new path is quietly being blazed by a small group of dedicated renewable energy innovators in the San Luis Valley.
Town of Del Norte (Rio Grande County) Solar-powered Water System

The Orient Land Trust near Poncha Pass has been off-grid for decades and recently expanded its hybrid geothermal-microhydro generation plant to meet 100% of its needs.  The Town of Del Norte recently celebrated the completion of its 1.9 MW Net-Zero Solar network.

Town of Mesita, Costilla County, CO Biodiesel plant
In the tiny town of Mesita, the Costilla County canola/biodiesel plant also has plans to expand production to provide more clean, sustainable fuel from locally grown canola to more Valley customers. The 300 kW Humprey's microhydro generation plant made a big splash last fall when it went into the operation. The City of Alamosa, Alamosa, Del Norte, Costilla and Crestone District Schools, Adams State College, SLV Regional Medical Center and SLV Federal Bank have all gone solar.  

Dozens of pioneering SLV farmers have installed solar PV panels to power irrigation pumps and efforts are moving forward to develop up to 2,500 MW of solar generation on crop circle pivot corners without adversely impacting valuable agricultural lands.  And last, but not least, hundreds (perhaps as many as 1,000) homeowners have installed solar PV on their rooftops since the 1970's.

These locally owned installations create real energy independence that renews our communities from the ground up.  

Some people think we can have both local and industrial solar development, but the evidence from renewable energy experts suggests otherwise.  Industrial solar is more likely to absorb limited financial resources, monopolize existing transmission capacity, saturate markets and create a path dependency that leaves little room for local energy-based economic development.  The diversion of limited resources for solar industrialization in the San Luis Valley could restrict the ability of all Colorado communities to generate, and reap the benefits of local renewable energy.

Two key decisions lay before our federal and county elected officials that could determine the energy future of Saguache County, the San Luis Valley and Colorado.  We urge people throughout the San Luis Valley and Colorado to let the BLM and Saguache BOCC know which vision of our energy future you would like to see come to bear.  


This week, Coloradans have a chance to endorse or reject the Bureau of Land Management, Supplement to the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Study (SPEIS), plan to open more than 100,000 -acres of public lands in the San Luis Valley (including 4 Solar Energy Zones) to massive corporate, industrial solar development:

Wed. January 11, 2012
7 pm (displays open at 6 pm)
Inn of the Rio Grande
333 Santa Fe Ave., Alamosa, CO
 Call (800) 669-1658 for more information
Download the PEIS documents here.  
For a critique of the BLM plan 
see the Wrong from the Start report produced by Solar Done Right.

Comment deadline: Jan. 27th

Written comments on the SPEIS can be submitted through the Public Comment Form. Submitting comments through the Public Comment Form is the preferred method for purposes of tracking and providing confirmation of receipt. However, comments can also be mailed to:

Solar Energy Draft PEIS
Argonne National Laboratory
9700 S. Cass Avenue, EVS/240, Argonne, IL 60439


Solar Reserve 650' tall power tower just completed in Nevada (solar mirror field is yet to be constructed)
The Saguache Board of County Commissioners is currently considering Solar Reserve's 1041 permit application to develop two 656-foot power towers on 4,000-acres near Center, CO, approximately 25 miles west of Great Sand Dunes National Park.  The project could change the visual landscape of much of the San Luis Valley and irreversibly impact migrant wildlife, including the 20,000 Sandhill Cranes and 200,000 Brazilian free-tail bats that visit the SLV annually (more about the proposed project on our blog and the Crestone Eagle)

Comment deadline:  
3 pm, Thur., Jan. 26th 
Email to: Wendi Maez at 
or mail to:  Saguache County Land Use 
PO Box 326, Saguache, CO 81149

Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012
2 pm to 8 pm
Center School Auditorium, Center, CO
Instructions on how to access the Solar Reserve Permit Application here.



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