A controversial solar project northwest of Cortez gained approval from the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday after mitigation measures were added to reduce visual impacts to neighbors.
The five-megawatt solar energy system would be built on 52 acres off County Road 24 on land owned by Shawn Wells, Glen Wells and Empire Electric. It will be situated in an area that has a mix of residential, agricultural and industrial uses.
The solar plant would be built and owned by Cortez Solar 2 LLC, a subsidiary of OneEnergy Development. Construction is planned for September. Empire Electric will buy the electricity under an power purchase agreement with Cortez Solar 2.
The project complies with the county land use code, said Commissioner Jim Candelaria, and the developer has met with neighbors to address and and mitigate visual concerns. Candelaria and Commissioner Joel Stevenson voted to approve the project.
Commissioner Kent Lindsay recused himself from the proceedings and did not vote because he is a board member for Empire Electric Association. He also left the room during the proceedings.
Gavin Berg, director of planning development for OneEnergy, presented the mitigation measures for project neighbors Cathy Topper and Jodi Hubbs, and residents responded during public comment.
“We went through a fairly rigorous process to engage the two landowners to find solutions and meet their needs within what we are capable of providing,” Berg said.
The company agreed to a 100-foot setback of the panels from the property lines on the south side of the project. The county requires a 30-foot setback.
The company will also purchase and plant trees along both southern property lines to help screen the solar panels from neighbor view. An eight-foot, green privacy fence will be installed 50-feet back from southern property lines to help further screen the panels from varying view perspectives.
For Cathy Topper, the solar company will plant 24 evergreens and extend the irrigation drip system. For Jodi Hubbs, 14 evergreen trees, five ornamental trees, and three lilac bushes will be planted.
The project potential for displacing prairie dogs towards neighbors was also addressed, Berg said.
One Energy has entered into a contract with a local exterminator to use carbon monoxide treatments to remove prairie dogs on the construction site. The exterminator reports that initial treatment is expected to remove over 85% of prairie dogs. In the first year, the company will schedule tow or three follow-up treatments to complete the removal, and plans annual checkups to maintain success of the prairie dog removal for the life of the project.
Topper and Hubbs have agreed verbally to the mitigation measures, and written agreements are pending.
They pointed out that the screening and prairie dog mitigation provided by the company was appreciated, but that there will still be visual impacts from the large solar array next door. Watering the trees will be an additional burden for the landowners, they said, and the potential for reduced property values remains a concern.
“Still have concerns about the devaluing of my property. I will still see the solar panels, it will change my property, my views,” Hubbs said. “The burden falls on me to protect my view from a project that someone else is putting on.”
The screening trees for Hubbs are planned on the Wells side of the property line, but Hubbs would be responsible for watering them.
Planning director Don Haley recommended the trees be placed on Hubbs’ property so they are under her control. Hubbs said having them on her property will reduce her pasture land. Both landowners are seeking additional shares to water the trees.
Another neighbor to the west also expressed view shed concerns, and Berg said One Energy will meet with the person.
The solar project is adjacent to Empire’s Engineering and Operations Facility on Road L.4 and will connect directly to the utility’s distribution system. No new electrical lines on adjoining property are required. The photovoltaic solar panels will be mounted on a system that tracks the sun for maximum exposure.
It is estimated the project will produce enough energy to meet the needs of about 1,200 average American households annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalency calculator.
Empire Electric touted the value of clean, renewable solar power and the affordable energy passed on to the customer.
The project “is expected to benefit all of EEA’s members by providing low-cost energy and downward rate pressure,” said Josh Dellinger, Empire Electric Association general manager, in a March 15 letter supporting the project.
Empire is a distribution cooperative of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and purchases 95% of its power from Tri-State under a long-term contract.
Empire is free to purchase the remaining 5% of power from other sources and has chosen to do so from local solar projects, said Andy Carter, energy management adviser for Empire.
Local solar power offers “cheaper prices” than Tri-State, he said, which “helps keeps rates lower for customers and reduces operating costs.”
Empire also has a power purchase agreement with the 2.2 megawatt solar array approved for construction next to Totten Lake. That project is also being built by OneEnergy.
A third solar project, Rocky Ford, is in the planning stages for southeast of Cortez, and Empire has agreed to purchase the power from that project as well.
When combined with other Empire solar projects, the energy purchases are expected to mostly meet the 5% cap for power sources other than Tri-State.