Solar farm begins generating clean electricity near Woody Creek
A nearly 14,000-panel solar farm near Woody Creek began generating electricity for Holy Cross Energy about a week ago, according to an official with the California-based company that built the facility this summer.
And while the green generation of enough electricity to power at least 900 homes comes after a contentious approval process nearly two years ago in which neighbors of the project loudly objected to its visual impacts, few complaints about it were received during the construction process this summer and none have been registered since the solar field went live, according to a Pitkin County senior planner.
“I’m thrilled beyond belief to see this finally operational,” Mona Newton, executive director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, said Tuesday. “Here we are with a five megawatt solar project in Pitkin County. We are taking responsibility for our contribution to climate change.”
The solar farm is a joint undertaking by the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, which owns the 35-acre parcel; Holy Cross, which has pledged to make 100% of the energy it provides renewable by 2030; and Oakland-based Primergy Solar, which built it with investor funds and has signed a 25-year deal to operate it.
The 35 acres is part of a 55-acre plot owned by the sanitation district in the Woody Creek area between McLain Flats Road and the Roaring Fork River, just off Stevens Way and north of the Rio Grande Trail. The district has owned the land for 30 years and previously used it to dispose of treated wastewater under a federal permit.
Supporters of the project have pointed to the site as an ideal location for a solar array because of the former industrial use of the property and that it’s located under the flight path of the Aspen airport, making it less than ideal for housing. In addition, Holy Cross power transmission lines are about a half-mile from the site, providing a relatively simple connection to the main grid.
The Aspen sanitation district will receive lease payments from Primergy for the land, as well as a 33% energy credit from Holy Cross on the district’s estimated $280,000 annual electric bill. District customers will save money with the deal because the energy credit is set to grow over the years, sanitation district officials have said.
Holy Cross will buy the power generated by the farm from Primergy, which put up the money to build it, and further its goal of producing 100% clean energy by 2030. Adam Larner, Primergy’s chief operating officer, declined to say how much it cost to build the solar farm, though a prior solar development company involved in the project estimated the price tag at between $6.2 million and $7.2 million.
“It cost Primergy a lot of money,” Larner said this week. “It cost the community nothing, other than savings on their electric bill.”
The 5 megawatts of power generated by the 13,700 solar panels is already being transferred to Holy Cross transmission lines via an underground connector that was also built this summer. Exactly how many homes that amount of electricity will power is apparently up for some debate, with estimates over the past two years ranging from 900 to 1,300.
“Oh it’s fantastic,” said Bryan Hannegan, CEO of Holy Cross Energy. “The new Pitkin solar array is an important step on getting to our clean energy plan.”
Not only will Pitkin County’s solar farm help fight climate change, it will also contribute to energy resilience in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley, a subject that has received more attention since the Lake Christine Wildfire in 2018, Hannegan said. The solar farm here is the first of four Holy Cross plans to open in Rifle, Parachute and Colorado Mountain College’s campus in Spring Valley in the coming years under similar arrangements with solar array developers, he said.
The company also has purchased other solar arrays in the Roaring Fork Valley and encourages individual rooftop solar projects as well.
“We’re doing a lot of solar,” Hannegan said.
When Pitkin County commissioners unanimously approved the solar project — which was then being developed by a different solar company — in November 2019, plans called for 18,000 solar panels, re-grading of the entire site to make it flat and the construction of a 4-foot-high berm to shield the array from the Rio Grande Trail.
When Primergy bought the rights to develop the project, the company decided it did not need to re-grade the site and that it could use the exiting topography, said Larner and Pitkin County senior planner Leslie Lamont. That meant the berm, which would have been constructed out of the leveled soil, was eliminated and county planners suggested landscaping instead, which better met with commissioners’ desires to not hide the project, Lamont said.
Finally, the number of panels was reduced from 18,000 to 13,700.
Support for the project came from many young people who live in Pitkin County, as well as numerous other residents who saw the farm as a way to fight climate change. Commissioners had declared a climate emergency the month before they approved the project, and often cite a 2012 Climate Action Plan adopted by the county as a guide for supporting green projects and making decisions that impact the climate.
Vocal opposition to the project came mainly from residents of Brush Creek Village, located across Highway 82 from the solar farm, who worried that the project would decrease housing values and ruin views. Residents of Woody Creek and the W/J Ranch housing development also voiced objections to the project’s visual impacts and impacts to wildlife, especially area elk herds.
Glare from the panels, both for nearby residents and planes flying overhead, also was high on the complaints list at the time.
Lamont said the county received a few complaints during construction about dust and noise, though an employee of the county’s Environmental Health Department determined that it was acceptable. Lamont pointed out that the dust would have been much worse if the site had been graded according to the original plan.
In addition, the only complaints about glare were received before the system that allows the panels to track with the sun was turned on, she said. Once that system was engaged, however, the complaints stopped. The panels are also treated with an anti-glare coating.
Bill Dinsmoor, Woody Creek Caucus moderator, said Tuesday that the solar farm construction this summer prompted few complaints from his members.
“There’s not been a lot of discussion (about the farm),” he said. “They’re just accepting the reality that it’s going to happen and move on.”
He said he’s still concerned about elk herds that come down from the hills might have a problem accessing the Roaring Fork River, which he hopes will be monitored by wildlife officials.
Wayne Ethridge, president of the W/J Metro District and Homeowners Association, voiced a similar reaction, saying the construction impacts were minimal this summer and that he wasn’t aware of any complaints from his neighborhood.
“The construction seems to have been managed fairly well,” Ethridge said. “It is less impactful, size-wise, than initially planned. That’s been helpful.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who lives in Brush Creek Village, has solar panels installed on his roof and can see the solar farm from his home on Solar Way, said he also hasn’t heard any complaints from his neighbors, with the exception of one resident who lodged several complaints about the construction this summer and glare when the panels were being installed.
“I’m not getting any glare,” he said. “The difference for me is a matter of color. I guess some of my neighbors don’t like the look of it, but I guess they will get used to it.”
Poschman said the previous view of a brown field that had been saturated with wastewater for three decades then planted with non-native grasses “did not look natural” either. Now, the area is simply darker with the solar panels, he said.
“I am so psyched about this,” Poschman said Tuesday. “Notice how quiet it is. Notice how you don’t see a lot of activity. I knew all along that once the thing was in, it would be fairly benign.”
Hannegan said that while the process of getting the solar farm approved was “a long time in coming,” he’s proud that community concerns have been addressed along the way and that visual impacts have been appropriately addressed. Larner also cited his company’s desire to address problems and concerns that arise with neighbors.
“It’s part of our social governance pact to be good neighbors,” Larner said. “I feel it’s important to operate these things properly.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child called climate change an “existentialist threat to the survival of humans and animals on Earth” in November 2019 and was an early supporter of the Woody Creek site as a solar farm. He praised Newton and Bruce Matherly, district manager at the Aspen sanitation district, on Tuesday for “their persistence and determination in getting the project to this point.”
“I’m very excited to see the solar project beginning operating,” Child said. “Our community can be proud that we are stepping up to the challenge in doing our part to provide renewable electricity production right here in our backyard.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Commissioner Greg Poschman clarified Wednesday he did received complaints about glare from one person during the panel installation.
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