Paul Andersen: Solar panels: blight or beauty?
Opposition to a proposed solar array in Pitkin County is understandable and predictable. Neighbors looking down at the site along the Rio Grande Trail south of Woody Creek will see an open meadow transformed into an industrial site.
I don’t envy the county Planning and Zoning Commission at Tuesday’s hearing: weighing visual impacts against environmental benefits. That balance is precarious when any community takes on a perceived burden for a larger good.
Clean, renewable electricity got big pushbacks on the East Coast when windmill turbines for a proposed wind farm near Block Island, 34 miles off shore from Cape Cod, were vehemently opposed.
The same occurred with Vineyard Wind, a proposed wind farm with as many as 100 turbines about 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Both windfarm proposals have been deeply contentious and protracted — and there are more and larger wind farms in the works.
Why? It’s become clear that the climate impacts of traditional fossil fuel energy are tied to rising oceans, species extinctions, climate refugees and untold disruptions to social, cultural and political stability around the world. The catchphrase “Thinking globally and acting locally” takes on moral and ethical dimensions.
The proposed solar panel array in Pitkin County is substantial: 18,000 solar panels will absorb the energy of the sun and convert it into electricity. The proposed array would cover 23 acres (35 acres total, including landscaping) with panels rising 7.5 to 10 feet off the ground as they pivot in unison on a sun-tracking axis.
The proposed site is owned by Aspen Sanitation, which used the site from the mid-1970s through 2005 as a depository for treated sewage sludge. For almost 15 years the site has been dormant.
Holy Cross Energy, the region’s largest and perhaps most progressive utility, became interested in applying solar to the site after fielding requests from its owner/customers who asked for more renewable electric generation to offset carbon emissions from other energy sources — like coal — and natural gas-fueled power plants.
Holy Cross requested bids for a 5-megawatt array, and Pitkin County will now hear the winning proposal in a process that starts Tuesday at P&Z. Opposition is expected from the Woody Creek Caucus and the Brush Creek Metro District.
When I asked Connor Goodson, who’s representing the project, how he was received when he met with both opposing entities, he laughed nervously at what was evidently a cool reception. This project is a sore point if you feel it will diminish your viewplane and conceivably lower your property values.
The NIMBY reaction is understandable if your home might look down upon 18,000 solar panels pivoting in the sun. But there’s a larger view to consider. That view is global and reveals the acute need for carbon reduction through renewable energy.
The 5 megawatts produced by the proposed array is enough to provide for about 20 of what Goodson calls “average homes” of 2,000 square feet. “Not average for Aspen,” he allows with a sense of irony.
Here lies the conundrum. Don’t we all have a moral obligation to assume some of the cost — visual or otherwise — to help cover this community’s oversized energy footprint? If the larger Aspen community is to take the higher ground on the environment, the answer has to be YES!
Cracking down on extraneous energy use and waste could certainly address some of that responsibility, but most of us are habituated to using energy as if there are only financial costs. With collective discipline, Aspen could save % megawatts, starting by shutting off the blinding arc lights at the X Games and dimming monster homes that are lit up like cruise ships.
That won’t happen voluntarily, so a solar array must provide offsets that stir resentment over the inconvenient truth that localities must embrace global solutions for climate change.
They’re doing it off-shore in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They doing it with rooftop panels on Brownstones in New York City. They’ve done it at the Rifle Airport where I own eight solar panels that provide for all my household electricity.
They should do it in Pitkin County where neighbors must learn to view solar as beauty, not blight.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.