Bay-area based company Primergy Solar has submitted its application to the La Plata County Planning Department for a massive solar project south of Hesperus.
Neighbors to the proposed site in southwest La Plata County, who felt the initial announcement of the project lacked clarity, have awaited the application with bated breath.
The application – a collection of documents over 1,000 pages in length – outlines the specific proposal for the 1,900-acre project, which, if constructed, is projected to create 155 megawatts of solar energy each year in addition to a battery storage capacity of another 155 MW.
The facility would be located on three pieces of property – 320 acres on the north end of the installation are managed by Fort Lewis College, and the remaining 1,600 acres are split roughly evenly between land leased from the Isgar Trust and land purchased from Three Sisters LLC, owned by the Wertz family.
The proposal contains several highly anticipated documents including a detailed economic impact assessment, details addressing the wildlife impact, a fire mitigation plan and a decommissioning plan.
It will now be reviewed by the county’s planning department. The county has exercised its authority to extend the review period given the upcoming holidays and it is expected to decide whether Primergy has submitted all the required documents by Jan. 4. The department will hire a consultant that specializes in solar projects to assist in the review process.
Christy Kost, the natural resources planner with the county, said the office would also hold at least one (and likely multiple) neighborhood meeting in accordance with the 1041 rules adopted in 2019. Those rules apply to projects that are likely to impact more than just a proposed project’s immediate vicinity, and this will be the first project that the county has reviewed under them.
The filing includes a 38-page Economic Impact Assessment prepared by Triple Point Strategic Consulting, a Crested Butte-based firm. The study examines the direct and indirect economic impacts of the project, including the ripple effect of spending in the region during the construction and operational phases of installation.
The assessment found that the construction phase would inject $559,000 into the county in direct, indirect and induced tax revenue, as well as $579,000 to city and townships and $1.2 million to special districts (such as fire and school districts). The most significant tax dollars – another $10.3 million – would go to the state and federal government.
The document fails to address the question of whether the jobs taken into account would go to local workers. Kathryn Meyer, the project’s director at Primergy, had previously said the company would try to hire locally but that qualified labor might not be available in the area.
Construction is anticipated to require a total of 184 installation, maintenance, repair and construction workers who would be paid a collective $10.8 million. However, Primergy could not confirm whether those jobs are anticipated to be local.
In a statement emailed to The Durango Herald, Meyer said the inputs to the model used were “at the discretion of those who carry out the analysis.”
The consulting firm did not respond to a request for comment.
The total estimated tax impact of operation for the duration of the project on the county, sub-county and special districts is $32.1 million. The state and federal governments are projected receive $15.9 and $20.3 million, respectively.
Concerned neighbors brought up the local elk herd as a potential issue from the moment Primergy announced its plans. The application shines some light on what the project could do to mitigate its effect on wildlife.
A significant portion of the proposed site sits on land classified by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as area where mule deer and elk range in the winter, as well as land that has a resident elk population.
Based on advice offered by CPW after a visit to the site, Primergy amended its plans to include a 1,000-foot-wide wildlife corridor through the project. Rather than surround all 1,900 acres in 6-foot high barbed wire fencing, it will be surrounded by 8-foot high deer fencing. The company also eliminated all dead-end pathways in the project, instead creating two distinct sections of infrastructure separated by the game corridor. The company also shifted the location of some of its panels to previously disturbed land to minimize the destructive impact.
Primergy says the corridor “will provide an exciting opportunity for research and education of big game movement near energy facilities,” and believes the corridor to be the first of its kind in the state.
Gary Skiba, wildlife program manager for San Juan Citizen’s Alliance, said in an email to the Durango Herald there is “no question” the corridor would be used.
Skiba also emphasized that it was difficult to quantify the impact.
“To the extent that elk (and presumably deer) are using the entire area as a migration route now, some proportion of it will be blocked and unusable,” Skiba wrote. “There are undoubtedly effects that depend on vegetation and topography; again, I don’t know of any research that quantifies those effects.”
Skiba also suggested that if Primergy is pitching the corridor as an “exciting opportunity for research,” the company could be asked to fund said research.
The STOP Hesperus Solar group opposing the project has highlighted the potential risk for fire as one of its larger concerns regarding the facility. Primergy’s application includes a 10-page Fire Response Plan, which includes limiting flammable and combustible materials on the site and the presence of ample fire extinguishers.
Primergy also said it would provide facility-specific training to the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District, which would be the first to respond to any incident. Members of the group opposing the project expressed doubt that the mostly volunteer department has the resources to appropriately respond to a fire at the facility.
When asked whether those concerns were legitimate, Fire Chief John Lee said simply “no.”
More details on specific fire management plans will arrive after Primergy applies for a building permit.
For now, Meyer said, “There will be a specially engineered fire suppression system built into the array and the site will be monitored 24/7/365 from our operations center during construction and operations.”
The plan also noted that the battery system would include sensors that would automatically shut off if a fire occurred.
Given the scale and 45-year life span of the project, the decommissioning plan included in the application is likely to be closely scrutinized. The plan broadly states that all materials – including solar panels, batteries and foundations – will be removed and recycled off-site by an approved facility.
Primergy will also estimate the price of decommissioning and provide a security in that amount to the county.
Those objecting to the project have expressed concern that the site, some of which is currently used for agricultural purposes, may be forever ruined. Primergy insists that is not the case.
“Our obligations to our Landowners, and requirements under County code, require us to maintain or improve soil, water, and habitat quality,” Meyer said. “Upon completion of operations, the property will be able to return to productive agricultural use, should the landowner desire to do so.”
She also said the land will be returned to “the same or better condition” within 12 months of decommissioning, according to a contractual agreement.
It could be up to eight months before the proposal lands in front of the Board of County Commissioners.
“Community interest and input is extremely crucial to any kind of major review process,” Kost said. “Your input is impactful and the county does listen to community opinion and the board certainly takes community opinion into account when making a decision.”
Kost also said the planning office and the consulting firm hired would audit Primergy’s assessments.
“No stone will be left unturned with this project,” Kost said. “This is our first 1041 project and it will be scrutinized in detail. Things that impact our economy to this scale, things that can bring that much revenue to the table, it impacts the community in a big way, whether it is temporary or long-term.”
If approved, Primergy hopes to have the facility online by late 2025.