3 Part Series (Part 1)
Solar Energy future possibilities in the San Luis Valley
Interview with Colorado Republican State Senator Cleave Simpson
Article by: Isabel Lisle and Christine Canaly
Date: February 27, 2023
The Colorado Governor’s Energy Office, in a report published in 2008, identified the San Luis Valley (SLV) as a prime location for solar development in the state of Colorado. The San Luis Valley has clear skies, cool temperatures and a high elevation at over 7,000 feet, and 1-3% gradient slopes on the Valley floor, making it a very favorable location for development of large-scale solar facilities.
SLV Ecosystem Council recently partnered with COSSA (Colorado Solar Storage Association) to submit a comment to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission PUC, requesting that they conduct a study about electrical solar transmission and possibility of adding a new solar transmission line in the San Luis Valley.
SLVEC has been involved with the solar discussion in the SLV for over a decade and sees possibilities for the SLV to have energy autonomy, (the ability to produce its own energy that it uses), and perhaps enhance the ability to export what it doesn’t use. SLVEC and COSSA do share an objective in terms of the San Luis Valley transitioning in some way towards a clean energy future. The SLV has solar development potential and is also facing an unprecedented loss of groundwater resources, causing the drying and fallowing of agricultural lands, with a state mandate to stabilize aquifer withdrawal (groundwater pumping) by 2030.
Solar development could bring the SLV energy autonomy, expand economic livelihood, and develop true energy reliability and resiliency within the SLV electrical grid. In addition, it could contribute to Colorado and other western States meeting their decarbonization goals. But none of this is possible without adequate infrastructure upgrade to serve the SLV. Through this proceeding, the Commission can send a strong message to Colorado’s transmission utilities to pursue added upgrades, including the study of transmission opportunities, or allow others to do so in the absence of maintaining the status quo.
What differentiates the SLV from other parts of Colorado is the potential to develop renewable resources on previously disturbed ground. While other parts of southern Colorado have similar solar resource potential, the majority of these areas exist on undisturbed lands, including public lands. As more land is needed to develop the renewable resources necessary to make the energy transition, land use conflicts can increase. To be clear, in SLVEC's original 2010 position paper, we encourage solar to develop where it's going to be used. We support the use of microgrids, storage, and other forms of smartgrid technology, but we understand the necessity of solar production on more concentrated levels for the energy transition.
SLVEC encourages the use of agricultural activities underneath the solar structures to help build the health of the soil and provide shade habit for wildlife. Perhaps this could be integrated into a larger wildlife corridor vision. We will be discussing this more in future articles.
The Nature Conservancy (“TNC”) recently published its Power of Place West Report which looks at how the United States can meet its decarbonization goals while conserving ecosystems and natural spaces. TNC identified “key wildlife areas for solar,” which identifies potential sources of land use conflicts for solar development. They show that the SLV generally lacks these conflicts, making it one of the most suitable areas for development in the region.
It's important to make sure the implementation of solar is done to enhance the environment and its ability to recover. We see the development of solar as an opportunity for the restoration of the land.
SLVEC reached out to Colorado Republican State Senator Cleave Simpson about the Solar transmission study. Cleave says that he is “in support of the SLV transmission study, both in [his] capacity as the General Manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and as a legislator representing the San Luis Valley.” He also mentioned that RGWCD also submitted a letter of participation in the PUC Miscellaneous Docket for studying transmission options in the San Luis Valley.
Cleave has been active in discussions for a few years trying to find a “path forward for another transmission line for both additional capacity and some redundancy to provide more security to our community.” He has spent a few years trying to both “understand and communicate the connectivity in our Valley between food, water and energy.”
Water plays a big role in the push for solar development in the San Luis Valley.
In order to bring the San Luis Valley Aquifer back into balance, about 100,000 acres of center pivot irrigated land will need to go out of production. Parts of this unused agricultural land could potentially be converted into solar fields.
The developed landscape in the SLV is dominated by center-pivot irrigated agriculture fed by groundwater. Unfortunately, the unconfined groundwater aquifer underlying the area is being rapidly depleted, as more water is being used than is being replenished by the Rio Grande and surrounding mountain tributaries. This aquifer has lost about 1 million acre-feet of water since 2002. Farmers in the region have been forced to make tough choices, drastically cutting the amount of water used for agriculture in an effort to restore the aquifer. Land that had been used to grow crops is permanently being taken out of production and placed in groundwater conservation easements.
Senator Simpson suspects (because of the water scarcity issues) that “some amount of the Valley’s current productive agriculture will have to transition to something else; likely return to native vegetative cover or commercial scale solar operations or some combination of both.”
However, SLVEC is concerned about this transition, and wants to make sure that the community, wildlife, and wetlands on the Valley floor remain a priority.
Cleave hopes “we can collaborate as a community on what that transition looks like, with a very thoughtful approach about a variety of issues that include but are not limited to: land use, wildlife impacts, habitat impacts, economic impacts, soil health impacts, and quality of life impacts.”
In fact, Senator Cleave Simpson recently introduced a bipartisan Bill called Agricultural Producers Use Of Agrivoltaics, concerning opportunities for voluntary emission reductions in agriculture.
This Bill supports the study of the use of agrivoltaics and aquavoltaics. Agrivoltaics is the integration of solar energy generation facilities with agricultural activities. Aquavoltaics are solar energy generation facilities placed over, or floating on, irrigation canals or reservoirs. The Bill amends the statutory definition of "solar energy facility", used in determining the valuation of public utilities for property tax purposes, to include agrivoltaics and aquavoltaics.
In addition, the Bill would require the Director of the Division of Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to consult on the impacts on wildlife for projects using agrivoltaics or aquavoltaics in the state of Colorado.
Lastly, the Bill would require the commissioner of agriculture (in consultation with the Colorado energy office, the air quality control commission, and an institution of higher education with expertise in climate change mitigation, adaptation benefits, and other environmental benefits related to agricultural research) to examine greenhouse gas reduction and carbon sequestration opportunities in the agricultural sector, including the use of dry digesters and the potential for creating and offering a certified greenhouse gas offset program and credit instruments in the agricultural sector.
Cleave says he is still trying to figure out the potential for Agrivoltaics in the San Luis Valley. “Given the extreme dry conditions we live in I don't know how applicable the technology might be in its most traditional sense,” Cleave explains. “But folks around the State and the Country continue to evaluate innovative ways to incorporate commercial scale solar operations into existing agricultural operations and seek multiple benefits to the producers, the environment and the community.”
Cleave suggests checking out the website for Jacks Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado: Solar energy Colorado | Jack’s Solar Garden, LLC | United States (jackssolargarden.com). He spent some time last summer with the owner and appreciates his dedication to the concept. The Bill is “really intended to advance the conversation and move to some larger scale demonstration projects for proof of concept”, Cleave clarifies.
In order to facilitate this change, Cleave suggests the creation of a thoughtful panel of multiple stakeholders including (but not limited to): “county commissioners, farmers and ranchers, biologists, economic development entities, soil conservation districts, municipal interests, and maybe a politician or two.” He also recognizes the potential value agrivoltaics could have on our institutions of higher education. “Both Adams State and Trinidad State could play a vital role in advancing this concept.”
The Ecosystem Council will continue to research the potential impacts and possibilities of this project to determine what is best for the San Luis Valley, and the habitat and constituency that we represent.
***Stay tuned for part 2 of our 3 part series.