Ignoring naysayers key to years-long solar farm effort near Aspen

Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child, Holy Cross CEO Bryan Hannegan, and Primergy CFO Tim Larrison cut the ceremonial ribbon to open the 13,700-panel, five-megawatt solar farm in Aspen on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

With a plethora of thank yous and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting Wednesday, a small crowd officially welcomed and opened Pitkin County’s largest contribution to the fight against climate change.

While the 13,700-panel, five-megawatt solar farm built this summer near Woody Creek has been generating electricity for Holy Cross Energy for nearly two months, Wednesday’s small, chilly celebration was the official culmination of a years-long process many thought impossible when it began.

“It’s a great day for celebration,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child, an Old Snowmass native and strong supporter of green energy. “Everybody can pat themselves on the back.”

Child told an audience of about 50 who gathered at the site Wednesday afternoon, including officials from Pitkin County, Holy Cross and Primergy Solar as well as project supporters, that when he first brought up the idea seven years ago, he was told “there would never be a solar farm in Pitkin County.”

Bryan Hannegan, Holy Cross Energy CEO, said it was considered a “crazy idea to do solar in Pitkin County,” and that when he took the idea to his board of directors, they let him know that.

“They said, ‘You wanna do what Bryan?'” he said. “‘You wanna do it in one of the most difficult areas to do it?'”

Child said he initially thought of the Pitkin County Landfill as an ideal location for a solar farm because the panels could be hidden from most people’s view — until he spoke with Mona Newton, executive director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency.

“She said, ‘No, we want it out where everyone can see it,'” he said. “Others can see that Pitkin County is doing its part to generate renewable energy.”

The spot they settled on was ideal for project supporters, though some residents of Brush Creek Village across Highway 82 advocated against it.

The 35-acre solar farm is located between McLain Flats Road and the Roaring Fork River, just off Stevens Way and north of the Rio Grande Trail. It is on a site owned by the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, which formerly used it as a disposable site for treated wastewater under a federal permit.

Not only did that fact make it less than suitable for housing, it is also located directly under the flight path to the Aspen-Pitkin County airport, as evidenced by the numerous airplanes that flew over the site during Wednesday’s celebration. Finally, it is just a half-mile from Holy Cross transmission lines that could handle the extra wattage.

The farm, which was approved by Pitkin County commissioners in November 2019 after contentious public hearings, is a partnership among the sanitation district, Holy Cross and Primergy Solar, an Oakland-based company that built it and signed a 25-year contract to operate it.

Primergy, which built the site this summer, reduced the environmental impacts to the site, reduced the number of panels from about 18,000 to 13,700 and installed glareless, two-sided panels that are able to absorb solar energy from the sun and from light reflected from snow beneath the panels.

The sanitation district will receive lease payments for the land and a sizable credit on its massive yearly electric bill, while Holy Cross gets a step closer to its goal of generating 100% renewable energy by 2030.

Brush Creek Village residents and some Woody Creek residents opposed the project because of possible glare, visual impacts they feared would lead to decreased property values and concern for area wildlife.