Midvalley solar proposal gets chilly reception | AspenTimes.com

Midvalley solar proposal gets chilly reception

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Eagle CountyA computer-generated image shows the El Jebel hillside today, and with a proposed bank of solar panels showing above the trees (lower photo).

EL JEBEL – A proposal for the largest solar farm in the Roaring Fork Valley has midvalley government officials weighing the benefits of alternative energy against visual impacts.

A company called Clean Energy Collective (CEC) wants to install roughly 4,300 solar panels on five acres in the El Jebel area owned by Ace Lane’s company Woody Ventures LLC. The solar array would be built a short distance off Highway 82, northwest of Lane’s water ski lake, on a bench slightly higher than the valley floor. The land is undeveloped, but would require removal of some pinon and juniper trees.

CEC founder and president Paul Spencer said the 2-megawatt solar farm would generate enough power to meet the demands of nearly 200 average-sized houses in the U.S.

CEC has already developed a solar farm near Blue Lake subdivision that features 338 panels on one-third of an acre. That 77.7-kilowatt system started operating in September.

CEC has a unique business model as a partner with Holy Cross Energy. It sells actual ownership in the panels. Buyers own part of the array rather than just the power generated by the array. Holy Cross buys the power generated and credits individual owners for their share of the electricity produced. Buyers must be Holy Cross customers.

CEC broke ground last week on a solar farm at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle. That array will feature about 3,600 panels when it’s built out.

The Aspen Skiing Co. and Colorado Rocky Mountain School teamed to build a 147-kilowatt solar electric system at the school’s campus in Carbondale in 2007.

Spencer touts CEC’s projects as a good alternative to placing solar panels on individual homes. Some homes are poorly situated to absorb sunlight because of trees or hillsides. Other homeowners don’t have the funds to install an individual solar electric system.

In the bigger picture, solar farms will help Colorado with its goal of producing 30 percent of its electricity through alternative energy sources by 2020, Spencer said.

CEC wants to install its solar farm on land carved out of Lane’s 128 acres. Lane is proposing a development project with a mix of residential and commercial uses elsewhere on the property. Spencer said Lane was willing to provide the 5 acres best suited for a solar farm to CEC at a very favorable lease.

CEC needs Eagle County’s approval to develop the solar farm. The Roaring Fork Regional Planning and Zoning Commission started the review Thursday but didn’t vote. Comments by board members indicated the project might be a tough sell.

Planning commission member Temple Glassier said she wants a minimal amount of disturbance to the land and wildlife habitat for the solar farm. She wants the panels erected closer to developed areas along Highway 82.

“I don’t care if everyone can see it,” Glassier said. An alternative energy project is something the valley should be proud of, so the solar farm shouldn’t be hidden, she added.

Planning commission member Jay Leavitt was on the opposite end of the spectrum.

“That’s a huge visual impact as far as I’m concerned,” Leavitt said. “This is 10 times the number of panels that’s at Blue Lake, and that’s a huge impact. I’m not really crazy about that number of panels right on the road.”

Leavitt said people live in the mountains to enjoy their views. Residents of various neighborhoods in the valley have regularly opposed installation of cellular telephone towers that interfere with views, he noted. “And here we have 5 acres of solid glass,” Leavitt said.

He said he understands the need for alternative energy “but we have to live with this for 50 years.”

Planning commission member Jacque Whitsitt expressed concern about the solar panels being installed in an area mapped as winter range, severe winter range and concentration area for deer and elk. However, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has said the impact to wildlife by the solar farm would be “minimal,” according to Scot Hunn, an Eagle County government planner coordinating the review of the project.

Nevertheless, Whitsitt said, she is loath to surrender more habitat. “We keep chipping away at it until there’s nothing left at all,” she said. Whitsitt suggested there might be better places in the valley to build a solar farm.

Spencer said getting cheap land is a key for the farm to work. Lane is offering favorable terms, he said. Reducing the size of the farm isn’t really an option, he said, because smaller projects aren’t as fiscally feasible.

Spencer said 50 projects of similar size are needed between El Jebel and Glenwood Springs to make a dent in energy consumption.

Whitsitt replied that “bulldozing homes” might be the solution. When asked after the meeting to clarify her comment, she said she was referring to bulldozing homes to clear space for solar farms and to reduce the energy demand.

Whitsitt didn’t indicate if she has a problem with the visual impact of the proposal, but she said the county and CEC must do a better job of making neighbors and residents of the area aware of the proposal. Most people don’t comment on land use developments until the “bulldozers show up,” Whitsitt said. “I think that’s going to be quadruple for this project.”

Planning commission chairwoman Kim Bock told Spencer and his team she needed to see what the visual impacts will be from Laura J Estates. The subdivision on a hillside east of the solar farm will likely be affected the most, she said.

The planning commission meeting is scheduled to resume at 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 19, in the Eagle County office building and community center in El Jebel.