A large solar project proposed southwest of Pleasant View would benefit some landowners and the Montezuma County tax base, but its impacts have triggered strong opposition from neighbors.
Invenergy, a Chicago-based renewable energy company, proposes to build a 127-megawatt solar facility in the agricultural community. The electricity would be enough to power 27,000 homes annually.
The company hosted an informative and tense public meeting Monday at the Pleasant View Fire Station attended by 120 community members, who mostly opposed the project.
The Boutique Solar Energy Project would be situated on about 2,000 acres of noncontiguous private farm land located off County Road BB and to the south, roughly between Roads 11 and 15.
Sun-tracking panels would occupy about 1,100 acres, and the remaining land would be used for infrastructure and design flexibility, said Invenergy Renewable Development Associate Blake Crow.
The company has secured land leases with about 12 landowners for the project. Battery storage of the solar power is not planned at this time.
The life of the project is an estimated 30 to 35 years, at which time the panels would be removed by Invenergy and the land reclaimed, Crow said.
The solar array’s proposed location is near a Tri-State substation at Roads 12 and BB, where the electricity would be uploaded to the grid.
The local energy cooperative, Empire Electric Association, is not involved in the project, but some power would be used locally because Empire uses Tri-State lines.
The Boutique Solar project is in its preliminary planning phase. It still needs to go through the county planning process. Environmental studies are planned or are in process.
An application has not been submitted, said County Planning Director Don Haley. It would require a high impact and special use permit.
In 2015, Montezuma County passed a resolution adding solar farms as an allowable use in agricultural zones.
Once submitted, the solar project application and proposal would be reviewed by planning staff then by the county Planning and Zoning board. The planning board makes a recommendation for approval or denial based on compliance with the land use code and mitigation of impacts.
It is then reviewed by the Montezuma County Commissioners for a final decision.
Public hearings and comment will be taken by the planning board and the county commission before the final decision.
Blake said an application to the county is anticipated to be submitted in the coming months.
A power purchase agreement to sell the energy has not yet been obtained by Invenergy and is needed to finance the project. A 2019 company cost estimate was $127 million.
Previous negotiations for a power purchase agreement with Guzman Energy were unsuccessful, said John Lupo, of Albright, a project consultant.
Invenergy officials said they are in the process of submitting a proposal for Tri-State Generation and Transmission purchase the power.
Residents packed the Pleasant View Fire House during the open house Monday evening.
Concerns included the project’s potential impacts on viewsheds, wildlife, elk and deer migration corridors, property values and agriculture.
Noise from rotating panels was a concern, along with concerns about fencing, runoff from solar panel fields, weeds, prairie dog displacement and lost agricultural production.
The open house had information stations and maps with consultants and company officials to answer questions. But the format was not agreeable to the crowd.
“This is not helpful for me or fair to the community,” a man in the crowd told company officials. Many agreed with him.
A member of the project’s support staff, Sarah Lupis, of SWCA Environmental Consultants, announced that a formal presentation with audience questions would be done instead.
An overview of the project was given, then Lupis moderated a question-and-answer session that lasted about an hour.
Project neighbor Cindy Vermeule said fields of solar panels near her house would be a negative impact on the area’s natural values.
She lives in the area because of the scenery, open space and agricultural landscape that supports a diversity of wildlife.
“I have many, many concerns. I moved out here to retire and enjoy the community and nature,” Vermeule said. “I see hundreds of elk walk by my house. I have foxes that follow me, bobcats in my yard. I continue to wonder why this project is going onto prime agricultural property.”
The location and capacity of the Tri-State substation to upload the electricity on the grid was a factor for the current proposed location, officials said.
Travis Custer, Executive Director of the Montezuma Land Conservancy, urged Invenergy to prioritize mitigation efforts that reduce the project’s affect on neighbors.
The company should consider supporting conservation projects in other parts of the county to offset its impacts, he said.
A man asked what happens when the solar facility is retired.
Crow explained a decommissioning plan is being created to address that.
After 30 to 35 years, if there is an interest in repowering it with new solar panels, new leases may be negotiated. If not, then the project would be decommissioned. Invenergy would be responsible for removing the solar panels and returning the land to near-preconstruction status. Bonding would also be put in place for project removal and mitigation.
Another man said that if a project “takes farm land out of production, I vote ‘no.’”
“How many people who want this would want it in their yard, surrounding their house?” asked a woman against the proposal. “Do you want to look out the window and see that every day? It ruins the value of anyone’s house who has that around them.”
Scott Hartle’s home would be surrounded by the project, according to preliminary maps.
He said he was not contacted by the company until recently, and is concerned about potential health impacts of having so many panels close to his family, including his wife, who has an auto immune condition.
“Why were we excluded? We are in an extreme situation,” Hartle said.
The company asked him to write down his concerns and they would follow up with him.
Invenergy encouraged the public to fill out comment cards. They will consider additional public meetings.
After a permit application is submitted with the county, property owners within the proposed project footprint and adjoining neighbors are notified by mail.
Some farmers see the benefit of leasing their land to a solar company for the needed revenues. An extended drought has made farming more difficult to make a living.
“We chose to lease because farming to us has never worked out. We never made any money farming,” said Merle Root.
She hopes to use the money to help support a program to assist veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Invenergy touted multiple project benefits.
Taxes on the project and landowner lease payments would inject more than $16 million into the local economy over the life of the project. Increased tax revenues would help support local education and emergency services, the company stated in its information packet.
The solar energy would power 27,000 homes, and the clean power would reduce emissions equivalent to taking 23,000 cars off the road. More than 200 jobs would be created during construction, and up to four full-time positions would be created for operations.
A couple from the meeting said they supported the private property rights of landowners to work with companies in order provide regional energy generation and tax revenue within the existing land use code.
Resident Landon Wilson, speaking directly to the crowd, urged people to submit letters about their concerns to the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners regarding the project.
“That is where we can have the most influence: Go to those meetings, talk to them, they will ultimately decide. These guys are big corporations coming into rural communities with sweet talk. We cannot let this happen,” he said.
Project officials said multiple environmental studies would be conducted to inform project mitigation and designs, including for wildlife, geotechnical, hydrology, vegetation and soil management, wetlands, raptors, cultural values and archaeology, visual impact and others.
The studies will be posted on the Invenergy website, company officials said.
A wildlife corridor near the head of Hovenweep Canyon is part of the plan. The project will consult with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other agencies.
Mitigating visual impacts on the road to Hovenweep National Monument and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a big priority, said Melanie Medeiros, of SWCA Consultants.
If approved by the county and pending a power purchase agreement, construction would be in 2024 and 2025 and take 16 months. It would go online in 2025 or 2026.