EL JEBEL - A proposed solar farm with 4,300 panels on 5 acres of land in El Jebel sailed through a review by the Eagle County Commissioners Wednesday night.
The commissioners didn't take a formal vote, but they embraced the proposal by Clean Energy Collective (CEC), an alternative energy firm based in El Jebel. The commissioners held a hearing in El Jebel but said they must vote formally on the project at the county seat in Eagle. They told CEC founder and president Paul Spencer to expect approvals by the end of August.
The Tree Farm solar project will be built on land leased from Ace Lane, near his water ski lake across Highway 82 from City Market. The panels will be installed on a bench on a hillside that is shielded from view by cottonwood trees and other vegetation. It will only be partially visible from a few vantage points in the midvalley.
When fully developed, the project will provide 1 megawatt of power, enough to meet the needs for between 200 and 300 homes, Spencer said. It will add significantly to the solar power portfolio in the Roaring Fork Valley and Interstate 70 corridor. However, alternative energy is still just satisfying a small fraction of the overall power demand. It demonstrates on a small scale how difficult it will be to wean the country off electricity from coal-fired power plants.
"We're making progress where it's needed," Spencer said. "The bad news is we're on the first footsteps of Mount Everest."
The solar farm will provide roughly 20 percent of the power consumed within its immediate neighborhood, Spencer said. With Holy Cross Energy's help, CEC performed an energy audit. It drew a circle with a one-half mile radius around the solar farm site. Holy Cross' records shows that residences and businesses within that area are currently consuming about 5 megawatts of power.
The sobering statistics show that if the Roaring Fork Valley wants to address its own energy needs rather than export its problems, it needs to allow for significant-size solar farms in its land-use plans.
"You can't have solar without paying the price," Spencer said.
The Tree Farm site is the third solar farm CEC has approved in the region. A 77.7-kilowatt system started producing in September on land leased from the Mid-Valley Metropolitan District near the Blue Lake subdivision in El Jebel. A 858-kilowatt system opened last month at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle. That farm has the potential to double with a second phase.
CEC operates in a unique way. It sells panels at its farms rather than the power produced by those panels. Its customers then get a credit on their monthly electricity bills from Holy Cross Energy for their share of the power produced at the solar farm.
CEC buyers must be Holy Cross Energy customers. Holy Cross serves about 55,000 people from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and from Rifle to Vail. The utility cooperative buys the power from CEC's projects for use in its mix. A single meter shows how much power a solar farm produces, then the credit is given based on how many panels an individual customer purchased at the farm.
With existing credits, Holy Cross customers in Eagle County can purchase a panel for $516, Spencer said. Holy Cross customers in Garfield and Pitkin counties can buy a panel for $756, he said. The difference exists because Eagle County currently gives the biggest credit for investment in solar energy.
All of CEC's panels at the Blue Lake solar farm are sold. Spencer estimated that 30 percent of the Garfield County Airport solar farm is sold, and pending proposals could easily gobble the remainder in coming weeks.
He said he is uncertain whether CEC will expand the airport project or proceed with the Tree Farm project once the first phase of the airport project is sold out. The company is also pursuing approvals to build its biggest project yet at the Eagle County landfill. Eagle County leases land from the Bureau of Land Management. The lease specifies the land must be used for a landfill. The county, BLM and CEC all want the language altered to allow alternative uses, but it takes time to alter leases with a federal agency, Spencer said.
More information can be found on CEC projects and purchase opportunities at www.easycleanenergy.com.