The San Luis Valley faces difficult industrial energy challenges

The San Luis Valley has long been known for its world-class scenic values.  It’s home to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and a place where extraordinary wildlife migrations miraculously reoccur every spring and fall.

~ 1 mile from the 600-foot power tower in Tonopah, NV.  Basin and Range Watch

The Valley’s Unique Sense of Place was recognized nationally when Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, a native son to “El Valle”, unveiled a grand new conservation and tourism initiative last week.

The assessment of the regions historical, cultural and natural resources, could clear the path for a new National Park in the region.

While the Valley and State have been abuzz about the new plan, some locals and Coloradans are worried.

A  little known proposal to build two 656-foot tall solar thermal tower powers could intrude on the Valley’s unfettered views, wide-open spaces, decimate migrant eagle, Sandhill Crane, Brazilian Free-tail bat populations, and pose unknown hazards (such as retinal damage from glare) to surrounding communities.

The project was proposed by Saguache Solar Energy, LLC, a Project-specific entity owned by SolarReserve, LLC, based in Delaware.  The company wants to build the massive twin towers on a 6,500-acre swath of land just north of the town of Center, located, not surprisingly, near the middle of the Valley.

Just 58-feet short of the tallest building in Denver — the 56-story Republic Plaza — the massive twin towers will dominate the mostly uniform plain of the 120 x 75-mile valley floor, for miles around.

The towers will rival the 650-foot “High Dune”, the tallest dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – a mere 30-miles east of the towers.








Both photos above are of the actual 600-foot solar thermal power tower just completed by SolarReserve in Nevada, from 1 mile away (first photo) and between 5 and 6 miles from the tower (second photo).

As you can see, the facility is sited in the middle of a broad basin, similar to the San Luis Valley, near Tonopah, Nevada (visit Basin and Range Watchto see more pictures and learn more about the very similar “Crescent Dunes” project).

According to the SolarReserve application, each of the two 100 MW units will contain up to 17,500 individual 24 x 28-foot tracking mirrors (called “heliostats”) on 12-foot pedestals.  The mirrors will be placed in concentric rings extending 1.6 miles in diameter around each tower in an approximately 6,500-acre field.

The Nevada heliostat field has not been built yet.  If the above visual “simulation” is reflective of the “truth in advertising” that can be expected from SolarReserve, what can the citizens of Center, Saguache County and surrounding communities make of the rest of their analysis?

As the Saguache County Commissioners near a decision, many unresolved questions and concerns about the project remain, including:

1) What are the costs to the County? New short-and long-term costs will have to be absorbed for school, housing, emergency, road maintanence and other county services.  How will the project impact housing costs and other infrastructure?  (See “Big Solar’s Promise” for an analysis of a similar project proposed by Tessera Solar last year).







2) What are the impacts on wildlife and agricultural resources? How will the power tower, mirrors and salt-saturated evaporation ponds effect migrant birds,  including federally protected Golden and Bald Eagles, and the roughly 20,000 Sandhill Cranes and 200,000 Brazilian Free-Tailed bats that migrate to the valley (and provide free pest management services to farmers) each year?

According to local experts, the power tower is located on “some of the most productive agricultural land in the San Luis Valley”.  While the need for agricultural withdrawals is a daunting reality in the Valley, as farmers work to make aquifers “whole” again, is conversion of 6,500 acres of prime agricultural land the best choice when degraded or unused land is readily available?

3) What are the opportunity costs? It’s no secret that local community power creates significantly more jobs and local revenue than absentee owned energy generation (See Al Weinrub’s Community Power Report, for more on this).

What path dependencies would the San Luis Valley and Colorado be obligated to that could stymie the ability of our rural communities, farmers, ranchers and businesses to develop local, distributed solar generation in the future?

How will the project impact the ability of other Colorado communities to develop local renewable energy resources given the current limited utility market for renewable energy?

4) How will the project impact ratepayers? SolarReserve is promoting the power tower as a “proven technology”, yet it plans to seek an exemption from the 2% rate cap required by the Renewable Energy Standard, allowed for “experimental” technologies.  If such an exemption is granted, will there be no limit to what Xcel Energy can bill ratepayers should it negotiate a Power Purchase Agreement with Solar Reserve?

These, and other concerns deserve a full examination before Saguache County Commissioners approve a project that could severely impact the San Luis Valley’s most precious natural resources and future prospects for locally-owned and controlled renewable energy development.

SAGUACHE COUNTY Comment Deadline: 3 PM – Thursday, January 26, 2011

Or snail mail to:

Saguache County Land Use Dept.

PO Box 326, Saguache, CO 81149

2) Public Hearing:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

2 pm to 8 pm

Center School Auditorium

Center, CO


The Citizen is happy to provide a forum for comments and discussion. Please be civil, truthful, and relevant. Please suggest removal of comments that violate these standards. Real names are appreciated.

4 Responses to “The San Luis Valley faces difficult industrial energy challenges”

  1. Merrell Bergin

    Comment emailed to Saguache County Commissioners:

    With this proposal coming on the heels of the also grandiose Tessera project it should be clear that the Valley will continue to be a target for those who seek to extract its resources and run.

    The value of any land is way more than just the solar, mineral or other form of energy that can be taken from it. Clearly, there is an abundance of natural beauty and productive agricultural land in the San Luis Valley that deserves top priority. Balancing those uses with small, locally-owned solar power generation projects is a way to maximize all the benefits of this place without ruining it permanently.

    Saguache County Commissioners have been elected to represent the interest of the voters, acting as stewards of the land for the common good. Please take this responsibility seriously and don't let outsiders tempt you with empty promises of short term employment and quick financial gain. The land is forever and you are only its guardians for a brief while.

    South Park has already seen its grandeur diminished by the huge and ugly new electric power poles that now march up its spine. That's just one more assault on a beautiful place only to provide cheap electricity to people far away who have no interest in conserving energy or Colorado's natural beauty. Someone blew that deal - it didn't have to be above ground transmission lines.

    Don't make a worse mistake in the San Luis Valley.

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  2. I.C. Clearly

    "Colorado's future in renewable energy dims after years of growth"

    The Denver Post

    Like (0)
  3. M Brown

    What Are Romney and Gingrich’s Plans for Energy in the US?

    "Peak oil has been predicted for almost a 100 years now. Someday that prediction might actually be right, probably the same time as the flying cars we have been promised."

    "If you are so sure we have already hit peak oil and we all agree usage continues to grow I would suggest you liquidate all your savings and assets and purchase oil futures contracts. You will make a killing and be insulated from and effects of higher future prices. If you are certain and want all Americans to finance your believed solution you should put your money firmly behind your beliefs."

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  4. Catherine Adkins

    Am wondering how it will affect farmers around the towers. Also will it affect the snow in those areas, such as not staying on ground to rechareg. Also, cannot believe it will use on 150 per tower. If that is all it uses then why are they trying to buy special water rights.

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