Aspen-area solar farm proposal ‘a long, winding road’
September 10, 2018
Aspen's sanitation district is the second-largest power user in the Holy Cross Energy service area with utility bills that can run as high as $10,000 a month.
Over the decades, the district has looked at offsetting that cost using solar power, but the existing technology at the time meant that it would take too long to recoup any investment in it, said Bruce Matherly, district manager for the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District.
Solar technology, however, has changed, and the district — in conjunction with Holy Cross and a renewable energy company — wants to invest $1.6 million in and facilitate the building of a 33-acre solar farm in Woody Creek, Matherly said last week.
"Now the technology has improved and you can invest (in solar) and be in the black sooner," he said. "But there's no guarantee we can get this though the planning review.
"People speak a good green game, but like employee housing, everyone's for it unless it's across the street."
Wayne Ethridge, president of the W/J Metro District and Homeowners Association, represents an affordable housing complex just east of the proposed solar farm and said he is sympathetic to green energy but doesn't support the project.
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"We need to work toward more renewable energy sources," Ethridge said Monday. "But this project is not a replacement of 5 megawatts of power from a power plant.
"This is additional power to supply additional growth."
And while Ethridge admitted that W/J homeowners will not experience major impacts after the project is built — if it is built — he also objected to it on other grounds. That list includes Woody Creek already being targeted as "an industrial dumping ground" by the city of Aspen and town of Snowmass Village for impacts related to parking, the airport and water, he said.
"You bet it's a NIMBY issue," said Ethridge, a former Pitkin County commissioner. "It is a huge project."
In addition, he objected to a private entity running the solar farm as opposed to a public utility taking the reins. Private entities could sell the farm several times over until it is difficult to determine who actually owns it, Ethridge said.
"Investors in Hong Kong could care less about what's going on with their minor investment in a solar farm in Pitkin County, Colorado," Ethridge said. "That's a significant issue."
Renewable Energy Systems — an international developer of green energy with North American headquarters in Broomfield — would build and operate the solar farm as "Pitkin County Solar," according to documents submitted to the county. Matherly characterized the project as a partnership among the sanitation district, Holy Cross and RES.
RES submitted its application to Pitkin County in May to build the solar farm, which would be located southeast of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82. The company's plan came about as a result of a request for proposals from Holy Cross Energy, which wants to increase the amount of renewable energy in its power mix, to develop a solar farm in its service area, said Jenna Weatherred, Holy Cross spokeswoman.
Holy Cross chose the RES proposal partially because of its location near the company's two largest power customers — Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District and Aspen Skiing Co. — and because of Pitkin County's commitment to renewable energy, she said. Holy Cross also chose another solar farm proposal for the Gypsum area, she said.
In Woody Creek, RES would lease 33 of 55 acres owned by the sanitation district on a site that previously was used to treat biosolids between 1974 and the early 2000s before that operation moved to the landfill, according to a letter from RES summarizing the project. The remaining 20 acres not used immediately would be reserved for later use probably related to the solar farm, Matherly said.
The site would contain approximately 18,000 solar panels mounted on a system that allows them to track the sun as it moves across the sky for optimal energy production, according to plan documents. It would hook up with Holy Cross transmission lines through a half-mile connector line, according to documents submitted to the county.
The 5 megawatts of energy it is expected to generate is enough to power between 600 and 1,000 homes, Matherly said. Aspen Consolidated would receive lease payments for the solar farm space as well as energy discounts for the power generated by the farm, he said.
"It will come close to offsetting the power consumption of the treatment facility," Matherly said.
Taxpayers will see a "substantial return" on ASD's investment in the project when the district's power bills decrease significantly, Matherly said.
The solar farm would not have significant affects on wildlife, plant life, water quality or nearby recreational opportunities, according to planning documents submitted by RES. Visual impacts will be limited to "altered views … detectable from limited points on Highway 82, the Park and Ride lot and the Brush Creek subdivision," while views from the Rio Grande Trail will be mitigated by a "landscaped buffer," the documents state.
Finally, a study already done determined that airplanes won't be affected by glare from the solar panels, Weatherred said.
"It is safe," she said of the solar farm proposal.
Ethridge said the site will be as large as 25 football fields and that it will impact both viewplanes and wildlife.
"We believe the wildlife reports have been understated," he said. "The visual impacts of this project will be massive."
Ethridge said that opposing a renewable-energy project puts him and others in Woody Creek "in a difficult position."
"I have mixed feelings about it," he said. "But I don't think it meets the criteria of a renewable-energy project."
Under the most ideal circumstances, construction on the solar farm could begin by late summer next year, Matherly said.
But that may be wishful thinking as numerous governmental and quasi-government agencies must weigh in on the project, including the Brush Creek Metro District, W/J, Pitkin County's Open Space and Trails Board, Pitkin County's Planning and Zoning Commission and, finally, the Board of County Commissioners.
The project is next scheduled to be addressed at the Nov. 6 planning and zoning commission meeting.
"It's a long process," Matherly said. "It's a long, winding road."