Developing renewable energy such as solar is a good idea. Besides the environmental issues from using fossil fuels, it would be wise to get this country free of importing oil and gas from a very unstable part of the world, and keep us out of future conflicts. That said, the proposed solar project near Hesperus, is not the right solution for Southwest Colorado.
I base my criticism on three factors.
First is the loss of agricultural land. The number of acres available for grazing, growing vegetables, grains and hay in La Plata County has been shrinking yearly for several decades now. At the same time, we have had an increase in the number of younger residents wanting to get into farming. Local farm production and sales make up a growing segment of our economy. People who want to farm here are being forced out because of development and the rising cost of the remaining land. This will only further decrease opportunities for the next generation.
Secondly, environmental concerns. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has identified the 1,900 acres for the proposed project as winter range for elk and deer, not to mention the many other various species of wildlife. The deer population has been declining since the 1970s. Elk populations hit their peak around 2001 and have declined since. Increasing development in the river valleys and agricultural lands has severely cut into the winter range of these animals. Without adequate winter range with good forage, elk and deer do not winter well. Malnourished cows and does do not produce healthy offspring, which often do not survive to adulthood.
Also, the increase in the number of people who hike, snowshoe, cross-country ski or bike has also had a detrimental effect on our populations. A 1000-foot corridor between the solar arrays is not adequate to make up for the loss of the winter habitat.
In this semi-arid landscape, open ground is necessary to allow rain and snow to soak into the earth and replenish the aquifers. This is especially critical as more and more wells are drilled to keep up with increasing development. Covering this land with roads and solar panels will increase rapid runoff, which does not allow moisture to soak in. While the solar-panel company may be able to mitigate the possibility of increased flooding to some degree, there is no real way to make up for the loss of potential groundwater.
Finally, what is the real economic impact? Primergy has said it will create 250 jobs. There is no promise that these jobs will go to local people. The jobs would be mostly temporary during the construction phase. And there is no promise that the electricity produced would even stay in this area. LPEA has said it has not entered into any agreement with Primergy. Primergy is a California-based company in the portfolio of an Australian company called Quinbrook. Profits from the project will leave this area. It would be far better to have many small, locally built arrays, and find ways to make it financially feasible for private home and building owners to convert to solar. This would also reduce the massive project that will be needed to put in the power lines to carry the electricity.
We have the local talent and resources to grow sustainable energy here at home without using a giant company that will then control the cost and distribution of electricity.
Scott Perez is a Durango area-based former working cowboy, guide and occasional actor. Perez has a Master’s in Natural Resource Management from Cornell University.