Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Towers threaten world-class scenic values in San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley has long been known for its world-class scenic values.  It's home to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and a place where extraordinary wildlife migrations miraculously reoccur every spring and fall. 

~ 1 mile from the 600-foot power tower in Tonopah, NV.  Basin and Range Watch
The Valley's Unique Sense of Place was recognized nationally when Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, a native son to "El Valle", unveiled a grand new conservation and tourism initiative last week.

The assessment of the regions historical, cultural and natural resources, could clear the path for a new National Park in the region.

While the Valley and State have been abuzz about the new plan, some locals and Coloradans are worried.

A  little known proposal to build two 656-foot tall solar thermal tower powers could intrude on the Valley's unfettered views, wide-open spaces, decimate migrant eagle, Sandhill Crane, Brazilian Free-tail bat populations, and pose unknown hazards (such as retinal damage from glare) to surrounding communities.

The project was proposed by Saguache Solar Energy, LLC, a Project-specific entity owned by SolarReserve, LLC, based in Delaware.  The company wants to build the massive twin towers on a 6,500-acre swath of land just north of the town of Center, located, not surprisingly, near the middle of the Valley.

Just 58-feet short of the tallest building in Denver -- the 56-story Republic Plaza -- the massive twin towers will dominate the mostly uniform plain of the 120 x 75-mile valley floor, for miles around.

The towers will rival the 650-foot "High Dune", the tallest dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve - a mere 30-miles east of the towers.

On the left is the viewshed simulation submitted in SolarReserve's final 1041 application to Saguache County (the 2nd tower from the left is the theoretical view from 5 miles away). 

Up top and below are photos of the actual 600-foot solar thermal power tower just completed by SolarReserve in Nevada, from 1 (above) and between 5 and 6 miles from the tower.

As you can see, the facility is sited in the middle of a broad basin, similar to the San Luis Valley, near Tonopah, Nevada (visit Basin and Range Watch to see more pictures and learn more about the very similar "Crescent Dunes" project).   

According to the SolarReserve application, each of the two 100 MW units will contain up to 17,500 individual 24 x 28-foot tracking mirrors (called "heliostats") on 12-foot pedestals.  The mirrors will be placed in concentric rings extending 1.6 miles in diameter around each tower in an approximately 6,500-acre field.

The Nevada heliostat field has not been built yet.  If the above visual "simulation" is reflective of the "truth in advertising" that can be expected from SolarReserve, what can the citizens of Center, Saguache County and surrounding communities make of the rest of their analysis?

As the Saguache County Commissioners near a decision, many unresolved questions and concerns about the project remain, including:
    1) What are the costs to the County?  New short-and long-term costs will have to be absorbed for school, housing, emergency, road maintanence and other county services.  How will the project impact housing costs and other infrastructure?  (See "Big Solar's Promise" for an analysis of a similar project proposed by Tessera Solar last year). 

    2) What are the impacts on wildlife and agricultural resources?  How will the power tower, mirrors and salt-saturated evaporation ponds effect migrant birds,  including federally protected Golden and Bald Eagles, and the roughly 20,000 Sandhill Cranes and 200,000 Brazilian Free-Tailed bats that migrate to the valley (and provide free pest management services to farmers) each year?

    According to local experts, the power tower is located on "some of the most productive agricultural land in the San Luis Valley".  While the need for agricultural withdrawals is a daunting reality in the Valley, as farmers work to make aquifers "whole" again, is conversion of 6,500 acres of prime agricultural land the best choice when degraded or unused land is readily available?

    Jobs from local vs absentee owned solar
    3) What are the opportunity costs?  It's no secret that local community power creates significantly more jobs and local revenue than absentee owned energy generation (See Al Weinrub's Community Power Report, for more on this).

    What path dependencies would the San Luis Valley and Colorado be obligated to that could stymie the ability of our rural communities, farmers, ranchers and businesses to develop local, distributed solar generation in the future?

    How will the project impact the ability of other Colorado communities to develop local renewable energy resources given the current limited utility market for renewable energy?

    4) How will the project impact ratepayers?   SolarReserve is promoting the power tower as a "proven technology", yet it plans to seek an exemption from the 2% rate cap required by the Renewable Energy Standard, allowed for "experimental" technologies.  If such an exemption is granted, will there be no limit to what Xcel Energy can bill ratepayers should it negotiate a Power Purchase Agreement with Solar Reserve?

    These, and other concerns deserve a full examination before Saguache County Commissioners approve a project that could severely impact the San Luis Valley's most precious natural resources and future prospects for locally-owned and controlled renewable energy development.