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1,900-acre solar project proposed south of Hesperus would be among state’s largest

Development would include battery storage and enough energy to power 56,000 homes annually
Primergy’s Hesperus solar development would cost an estimated $400 million and have a 45-year life span. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

BREEN – Helen Aspaas almost ignored the hand-addressed postcard she received in the mail from Primergy Solar several weeks ago.

“When I got it I thought it was some local person selling solar panels to make your home better,” she said. Instead, the card was an invitation sent to Aspaas and 64 of her neighbors by Kathryn Meyer, the director of development for Primergy Solar, to an event announcing a 1,900-acre solar project the company hopes to begin constructing in September 2024.

The project would be situated on 1,900 acres east of La Plata Highway (state Highway 140) and north of Wildcat Canyon Road (County Road 141) south of Hesperus, and would feed power into the Hesperus substation. Primergy has entered into a planning lease with Fort Lewis College allowing it to use 320 acres of the Old Fort site at Hesperus.

Primergy has secured rights to lease about half of the remaining 1,580 acres from the trust of the late state Sen. Jim Isgar. The company will purchase the other half from 3 Sisters Durango, an LLC owned by Sherry Wertz and her two sisters. Wertz declined to say how much Primergy paid for the land.

A map showing the approximate location of the Hesperus Primergy Solar project east of La Plata Highway (state Highway 140) and north of Wildcat Canyon Road (County Road 141) near Breen. The company would like to begin commercial operation by the end of 2025. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Meyer estimates the project will cost $400 million and expects it to come online about a year after construction begins, in late 2025. Primergy is touting the project as an investment in the sustainable future of La Plata County, specifically highlighting an anticipated $37 million in tax revenue to the county over the project’s 45-year life span. Primergy anticipates the project will generate up to 155 megawatts of solar power and will include 155 megawatts of battery storage capacity, creating enough energy to power an estimated 56,000 homes annually.

The project appears to be one of the largest in the state: Colorado Springs approved construction on a 175-megawatt solar project in March, and a Pueblo steel mill purchases power from a 300 megawatt solar farm completed in 2021. The Hesperus project follows what Primergy calls the “Gemini Model,” named after a similar solar development project in Nevada for which the company received approval in May. The Nevada project is expected to be the largest in the United States.

While solar energy will be a part of the nation’s transition to cleaner energy, neighbors of the project have already expressed concerns.

Goals clear, some details cloudy

Primergy hosted an event for neighboring landowners Thursday at the Breen Community Building. Of the 65 people invited, about 26 attended.

Representatives of the company made themselves available to answer questions while attendees perused the six informational posters about the project. Some visitors came prepared to interrogate Meyer and her colleagues with printed maps and questions; others merely read the posters and left.

While Primergy is vocal about the projected outputs of the project, some details remain clouded within a permitting process that is just beginning. Meyer said that Primergy has done surveys of the ecological, geological and archaeological impacts of the project, however that information will not be public until the company files its permits with the county, which is expected to take place by the end of the month.

Likewise, the details of the decommissioning plan have yet to be finalized, but will be included in the permit filing.

One poster highlighted the anticipated job creation, which Meyer expects will peak at 250 during the height of construction. However, Meyer said it is unknown whether those jobs go to local workers.

“It's a standard request in our EPC (engineering, procurement and construction contract) to say that they prioritize hiring locally,” Meyer said. “But we do not typically make it a requirement because it can be very difficult to find quality people qualified to build these facilities. It's a very unique technical job and so we will absolutely do our best.”

The energy created from the solar array will be sold to a local entity or utility, however Meyer was unsure what effect that might have on energy prices for nearby consumers.

“That would be determined by whoever buys the power and whether or not they feel they're able to reduce their price as a result,” Meyer said.

College sees benefits, some neighbors express doubts

Fort Lewis College had previously turned down offers to use the Old Fort at Hesperus for solar power. The 6,318-acre property is owned by the Colorado State Land Board but managed by the college.

“We were not interested in a large scale solar project,” said Beth LaShell, director of the Old Fort at Hesperus. “When they started working for neighbors to the south, we started to join the conversations to have some say in it.”

The project aligns with the college’s sustainability interests, and LaShell said the college also sees the project as an opportunity for students interested in learning about solar energy development and engineering. She also highlighted that the company had been cooperative in adhering to the college’s interest in researching any archaeological impact the project may have on the site, which once contained a Native American boarding school.

Several neighbors expressed various concerns over the impacts of the project and were not assuaged by Primergy’s answers to their questions.

Carol Seely, whose 20-acre property abuts the project, expressed some concern and ambivalence.

“We think its going to take our view away and if we don’t get no use of it, I don’t know why they’re putting it back here,” she said. “We just all don’t know really what our thoughts are. We’ve been here over 30 years and we just don’t think much of our view being taken away.”

Seely remained unconvinced that the panels wouldn’t obstruct her view after Thursday’s meeting despite Primergy’s visual simulations of the project depicting almost invisible solar panels on the horizon.

Brandon Halley had concerns about the impact to property values should solar panels obstruct view corridors. His five-person general contracting company owns a high-elevation piece of property located across the highway from the project and 30 feet from the proposed power lines that would run to the substation.

“I’m getting pretty concerned that my million-dollar home might be worth a fraction of that,” he said. “People with a million dollars have a lot of options and that view is the main value of the property.”

While Halley acknowledged the need for clean energy, his frustration stemmed from the lack of transparency on Primergy’s part.

“Ultimately they told me ‘don’t make any assumptions about whether this will negatively affect you yet and we can’t give you any details to confirm whether or not you can formulate an opinion,’” he said.

For Aspaas, her concern stemmed from the potential wildlife impact of the project.

“Part of my ranch is in a conservation easement – 140 acres – and two sides will border this project,” she said. “I’m very concerned about a resident elk herd that is going to lose 2,000 acres of pasture. I’m very concerned about the impacts on my own flora and fauna on my ranch.”

Aspaas’ neighbor, Jack Scott, echoed this concern.

“I asked a question about (elk) migration routes – the whole thing is going to be fenced,” said Scott, whose property is near the project but not directly adjacent. “These elk will just be forced over onto the surrounding properties.”

Gary Skiba, the wildlife program manager at the San Juan Citizens Alliance, agreed that fenced-off areas will result in a direct loss of 1,900 acres of elk habitat.

More details and comments about the project and its impacts are expected to be available after Primergy files its permits with the county.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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