The La Plata Electric Association has submitted an application to La Plata County to develop a 9-acre “community solar garden,” as the utility is calling it, along U.S. Highway 550 south of Durango.
At a public meeting Wednesday, LPEA Vice President of Grid Solutions and Special Projects Dan Harms presented details about the project to a small group of concerned neighbors.
LPEA plans to install almost 2,000 solar panels on 9 acres of a 50-acre plot the co-op owns adjacent to the Sunnyside Substation near Sunnyside Elementary School. The plot was first purchased in January 2022, and LPEA awarded a construction contract to Konisto, a Durango-based solar construction company.
The array will generate 1.7 megawatts of power, which is enough to power 600 homes for a year.
Sunnyside Community Solar Project will be LPEA’s first foray into industrial solar energy production. Save for rooftop installations in the co-op’s service area, LPEA has been limited in how much of its own energy it can produce because of constraints in its contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Although LPEA is still waiting to learn the cost of a buyout that would enable it to produce up to 50% of its own energy, the current terms require that 95% of LPEA’s electricity be purchased from Tri-State.
In an interview with The Durango Herald, Harms said Tri-State had recently changed its policy to allow partner cooperatives to operate one solar facility as an alternative to dispersed solar arrays on individual houses. He said Tri-State also put a cap on the output of those projects, which LPEA intends to hit.
Thanks to financial incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, LPEA also stands to reap significant tax benefits from the project – at least 40%, if not 50%, of the project’s cost will be reimbursed via a tax credit.
Harms said the array will enable LPEA customers who could not otherwise afford the expensive initial cost of a solar array to access green energy. The co-op intends to target sales of the electricity toward low and moderate income customers.
“We want this to be a community-based solar project,” Harms told neighbors at the meeting, which was attended by about seven residents at the La Plata County Administration Building.
Attendees raised similar concerns to those voiced by neighbors of the Hesperus Solar Project. That project, which has been proposed by a for-profit solar company, is slated to occupy 1,900 acres. Harms sought to differentiate between to two, noting the significantly smaller footprint of this project.
Like the Hesperus project, Harms said the site for the Sunnyside array was chosen because of its proximity to an existing power substation.
Solar projects are often sited with substation locations in mind. Without one nearby, developers are forced to install expensive intruding power lines to transmit electricity from the panels.
One concerned resident asked if LPEA intended to eventually cover the remaining acreage with panels. Harms said LPEA had no plans to do so at the moment, but that it was a possibility if there are changes to the Tri-State contract allowing the co-op to generate more of its own power.
Other neighbors brought up concerns about the visual impact of the panels, which sit about 4½ feet off the ground. The highest edge of the panels will reach about 9 feet when the panels tilt toward the sun. The installation will be surrounded by an 8-foot game fence.
Harms said the project has only a handful of neighbors who could be visually impacted by the project, and he intends to meet with them individually next week.
Because the project is a public utility, it is subject to the location and extent review process. The substation was approved through a minor land-use permit under the previous code in 2008.
The approval process is less arduous than others in the code. After Wednesday’s community meeting, the project will go before the Planning Commission on June 22 for a decision.
Planning Commission meetings are held at 6 p.m. in the County Administration Building Board Room located at 1101 East Second Ave.