Bioenergy, Geothermal, Hydropower, Solar

Colorado’s Energy Future: Local or Corporate Power?

The San Luis Valley, CO has been in the national spotlight recently as one of the “coolest” hot spots for solar energy generation. Since around 2005, plenty of corporate solar energy developers have lined up to exploit the valley’s cool sun and high generation values for private profit.

What most don’t realize is that the people who make the San Luis Valley their home have been quietly stoking a different, more democratic, grassroots solar paradigm, going back more than a quarter of a century.

In the mid 1980’s the Solar Energy Research Institute — now the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colo. — credited the San Luis Valley with inspiring “an explosion in solar energy resulting in perhaps the highest per capita concentration of solar installations in the country.”

The early San Luis Valley solar innovators knew what many are just beginning to discover: locally owned clean energy is the path to true energy independence and lasting prosperity that benefits real people and communities.

John Farrell, with the Energy Self-Reliant States Project recently recognized Gainsville, Florida “among the world leaders in solar installed per capita,” beating out Japan, France, China and California with a whopping 36 kW for each of its 125,000 residents.

When the 30-MW Cogentrix facility goes online in April, the Valley will have a capacity of 1.78 kW of solar energy for each of its 50,000 residents.  An impressive beginning given that the average household PV system is 2-10 kW.  This is enough electricity to power 100% of the San Luis Valley’s average daytime demand (on paper, more than 2/3 is exported, but the laws of physics dictate that the solar electrons be consumed at the closest point of demand).   

As the Valley faces critical energy issues, such as the need for a $.5 billion new transmission line or whether or not to approve massive, industrial power plant proposals like Tessera Solar’s failed 200-MW dish Stirling proposal and the 656-foot tall power tower, 4,000-acre facility currently under review in Saguache County, a grand opportunity is being overlooked by all but a handful of local energy visionaries.

The San Luis Valley’s geographic isolation, extraordinary solar resource and abundant solar generation puts it in the unique position to become the nations first energy independent region and a model for every community in Colorado.  

The little village of Wildpoldsried, Germany is a harbinger of what the San Luis Valley could become.   In less than a decade and a half, the town installed enough renewable energy to produce 321% of its local energy needs — and it’s generating $5.7 million (U.S.) in annual revenue by selling the excess back to the grid.

The key to Wildpoldsried’s success is local ownership.   

The town’s local energy initiative was launched in 1997 when the village council made the decision to build new industries, keep initiatives local and bring in new revenue.

Over the next 14 years, the community equipped nine new community buildings with solar panels, built four biogas digesters (with a fifth underway) and installed seven windmills. In the village itself, 190 private households have solar panels.  The district also benefits from three small hydro power plants, ecological flood control, and a natural waste water system.

Here in the San Luis Valley, outside corporate and government powers have a different plan.  Rather than maximizing local benefits, they are proposing the same export dependent economic “development” model that has kept the San Luis Valley in poverty for decades.

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to open over 111,000 acres of public land in the San Luis Valley to corporate solar development for massive centralized solar power plants that dwarf the small, distributed SunEdison, Iberdrola, Cogentrix and SunPower utility installations in Alamosa County (for a critique of the BLM plan see the Wrong from the Start report produced by Solar Done Right).  

There is no doubt that these projects will provide limited tax revenue and are sorely needed, but they will also provide temporary construction jobs.  They also pave the way for 90% of the economic value of solar energy to flow straight out of the Valley and into the hands of absentee corporate owners and investors. 

Will the people and communities of the San Luis Valley really prosper by laying out the red carpet for the industry to collect the gold at the end of our solar rainbow?  Or is it time for real bottom-up economic development that allows San Luis Valley property owners, farmers, ranchers, small businesses and communities to reap the benefits from local solar generation?  

Despite many obstacles, a brave new path is being blazed quietly by a small group of dedicated renewable energy innovators in the San Luis Valley. 

The Orient Land Trust near Poncha Pass has been off-grid for decades and recently expanded its hybrid geothermal-microhydro generation plant to meet 100% of its needs.  The Town of Del Norte recently celebrated the completion of its 1.9-MW Net-Zero Solar network.

In the tiny town of Mesita, the Conejos County canola/biodiesel plant also has plans to expand from locally grown canola to more Valley customers. The 300-kW Humprey’s microhydro generation plant made a big splash last fall when it went into the operation. The City of Alamosa, Del Norte, Costilla and Crestone District Schools, Adams State College, SLV Regional Medical Center and SLV Federal Bank have all gone solar.   

Dozens of pioneering SLV farmers have installed solar PV panels to power irrigation pumps and efforts are moving forward to develop up to 2,500 MW of solar generation on crop circle pivot corners without adversely impacting valuable agricultural lands.  And last, but not least, hundreds (perhaps as many as 1,000) homeowners have installed solar PV on their rooftops since the 1970’s.

These locally owned installations create real energy independence that renews our communities from the ground up.   

Some people think we can have both local and industrial solar development, but the evidence from renewable energy experts suggests otherwise.  Industrial solar is more likely to absorb limited financial resources, monopolize existing transmission capacity, saturate markets and create a path of dependency that leaves little room for local energy-based economic development.  The diversion of limited resources for solar industrialization in the San Luis Valley could restrict the ability of all Colorado communities to generate, and reap the benefits of local renewable energy.

Two key decisions lay before our federal and county elected officials that could determine the energy future of Saguache County, the San Luis Valley and Colorado.  We urge people throughout the San Luis Valley and Colorado to let the BLM and Saguache BOCC know which vision of our energy future you would like to see come to fruition.   

This article was originally published on Renewables Community Alliance and was republished with permission.