Solar farm near Woody Creek coming to life after contentious process

The first 50 energy-absorbing panels were installed Tuesday at a controversial 35-acre solar farm near Woody Creek, about a year and nine months after the project was approved.

Thousands more panels will follow in the next few weeks, while power generated by upper Roaring Fork Valley sunshine should be flowing to Holy Cross Energy transmission lines by October, construction officials said Tuesday.

“It’s a win,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who lives in the neighborhood across Highway 82 that looks directly at the solar farm. “Pitkin County and the city of Aspen residents will have the benefit of a local energy source that provides resilience when our only power line becomes threatened by wildfire or another disaster — as we saw recently with the Lake Christine Fire.”

Contractors for Oakland, California-based Primergy Solar, which is building and will operate the farm, have been installing the posts that will hold the solar panels in recent weeks, though the panels had been stuck on a cargo ship anchored off the Long Beach Port in Los Angeles awaiting delivery, said Aurelio Trejo, construction supervisor.

On Tuesday, enough of the modules had arrived for workers to begin installing the first row of solar panels, known as the “golden row,” he said. Once that row is done, Primergy representatives will inspect it as a sort of template for the rest of the farm and sign off on it provided it meets specifications, Trejo said.

The 35 acres located off Stevens Way on the north side of the Rio Grande Trail in the Woody Creek area is owned by the Aspen Sanitation District, which used the property for 30 years to dispose of treated wastewater under a federal permit. Primergy will lease the property from the sanitation district, which also will receive a 33% energy credit from Holy Cross on the district’s estimated $280,000 a year electric bill. The credit will grow in subsequent years and save district customers money, district representatives have said.

Holy Cross, which has pledged to make 100% of the energy it provides come from renewable sources by 2030, will have an option to buy the solar farm in 10 years.

“We’re feeling great about it,” Bryan Hannegan, Holy Cross president and CEO, said Tuesday about the panels being installed. “We’ve been looking forward to this project ever since it was approved by county commissioners.We’re looking forward to bringing cleaner energy to the Roaring Fork Valley.”

The former industrial use of the property, the location of Holy Cross transmission lines within a half-mile of the site and the fact that it is under the flight path of the Aspen airport — making any potential housing improbable — mean its location is ideal, supporters of the project have said.

Residents of Brush Creek Village — which will look directly on to the solar farm from across Highway 82 — as well as people who live in Woody Creek and the W/J Ranch housing development objected to the project when it was being considered by commissioners in November 2019. Many voiced opposition to the project’s visual impacts — which some said would lower the value of their homes — as well as the impacts to area wildlife.

However, many others — including a sizable contingent of the upper valley’s young people — strongly supported the project. And commissioners themselves — who have consistently declared a commitment to fighting climate change — voted unanimously to approve the farm at the November 2019 meeting.

Initially the plan was to build around 18,000 solar panels on the site, which were expected to generate 5 megawatts of power, or enough electricity to power about 900 homes, according to a Holy Cross official.

On Tuesday, Trejo said Primergy plans to install 13,700 solar panels on the site. The panels are black instead of blue to cut down on reflected light for planes flying over and for neighbors, while they are double-sided so they can absorb energy reflected off the snow on the ground in the winter, he said.

“They are top-quality panels,” he said.

A tracking system will allow the panels to move during the day and follow the sun as it moves across the sky.

The top-of-the-line solar panel system allowed Trejo’s crew to install it without having to grade the entire the 35 acres. That, in turn, saved environmental impacts like dust creation on the site, Trejo said.

Once Primergy officials sign off on the golden row construction in a couple of weeks, contractors will begin installing the rest of the panels, Trejo said. That should last until about mid-September, when electricians come in and connect the panels to the Holy Cross transmission lines.

The panels should be producing energy by about the end of October, he said.

“It’s exciting,” Trejo said.