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Solar planning and development underway

Rapid deployment of utility-scale solar projects is a critical piece to addressing climate change impacts associated with electricity generation. Utilities throughout the West are particularly keen on replacing coal-fired power plants with photovoltaic solar and associated battery story projects.

Activity around solar project siting and development has reached a crescendo recently in the Four Corners. Large-scale solar projects are planned, some are already built or under construction, and state and federal entities are developing criteria for siting new solar projects.

The San Juan Solar project just south of the Colorado state line, and a few miles northeast of the now defunct coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, is in the midst of a construction frenzy. Hundreds of workers are busy installing solar panels, building a substation, and stringing transmission lines to connect to the grid at the San Juan Generating Station.

Phase 1 entails 200-megawatts of photovoltaic solar generation accompanied by 100-MW of battery storage. A second phase of similar scale is contemplated for tribal lands immediately adjacent to Phase 1. The project’s developer, D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, will deliver the renewable electricity to Public Service Company of New Mexico this coming summer.

San Juan Solar is a good example of siting a project close to existing transmission and substations on lands previously impacted by energy development and other infrastructure.

Just last week, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Bureau of Indian Affairs hosted a public meeting for the largest solar project proposed in our region. The Tribe’s Sun Bear solar project would deliver 971-MW of solar energy, and is planned across 4,000 acres of tribal land south of Towaoc, west of the Highway 491 and Highway 160 interchange. It’s proposed as part of the Tribe’s Climate Action Plan and for economic development.

Meanwhile, both the federal Bureau of Land Management and Colorado state agencies are crafting criteria to guide future siting of additional solar energy projects. BLM’s Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement targets areas located on gentle slopes within 10 miles of a transmission line, but excluding areas with important conservation values.

Hence, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument would be off-limits to solar projects, along with proposed wilderness areas or so-called Areas of Critical Environmental Concern that might encompass habitat for threatened species like Gunnison Sage-Grouse or others. Conservation groups are encouraging BLM to also prioritize areas already disturbed from other past resource development activities.

Additionally, the Colorado state legislature and the Colorado Energy Office are contemplating ways to streamline permitting for renewable projects and provide resources for local governments to plan for and review projects. One area of concern is how to incorporate the same kinds of wildlife habitat information into siting for renewable energy projects as occurs for oil and gas projects. A number of local governments across Colorado have instituted moratoria on renewable energy projects, partly in order to develop review criteria, but the delays concern climate advocates worried that could drag out the urgent response needed to address climate change.

From the experience gained across the Four Corners, it’s apparent the ideal sites for these large-scale solar projects include previously disturbed landscapes close to transmission lines, but without nearby neighbors and avoiding important wildlife habitat. On the surface, that might sound like a tall order, but in our region we’ve already seen a half-dozen or more projects built or proposed that fit that bill. They also face fewer hurdles with permitting and review as a consequence, and thus are built more quickly.

BLM is accepting public comment on its solar plan through April 18, 2024 at https://blmsolar.anl.gov/solar-peis-2023/. Stay tuned for Colorado’s proposal.

Mark Pearson is Executive Director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Contact him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.