The Crestone Eagle, August 2008:

San Luis Valley ‘ground zero’ for alternative energy?
Land of cool sunshine now a hotspot—but is that good?

by Ceal Smith

“We will have solar energy as soon as the utility companies solve one technical problem—how to run a sunbeam through a meter.” —anon.

‘Green’ has gone big and may soon be coming to the San Luis Valley. Spurred by growing concerns about climate change, government policy, and market forces, a new energy land rush is rolling across the Southwest. According to a recent Forbes Magazine article, demand for solar energy is growing by 100% a year in the US. Energy prospectors from around the world are buying up private land, filing for leases and applying for permits on public lands all over the West. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has received 104 requests to lease nearly a million acres of land, representing a theoretical 60 gigawatts of electricity. (For comparison, California consumes 33 gigawatts annually)

The alternative energy boom is also being fueled by a 2001 Executive Order instructing Federal agencies ‘‘to expedite projects that will increase the production, transmission, or conservation of energy.’’ The Order was mainly used to fast-track oil and gas development on public lands. Now, seven years later, it’s being implemented with the Energy Policy Act to expedite renewable energy development. The Act mandates that “at least 10,000 megawatts (MW)” be generated by alternative energy by 2015.

The San Luis Valley (SLV) is likely to be at the epicenter of this energy transformation. The US Department of Energy (DOE) and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Governor Ritter’s office, have identified the SLV as the major “hotspot” for solar energy in Colorado. Governor Ritter’s office recently estimated that just 2% of the SLV (approx. 5,120,000 acres) could supply the entire state’s energy needs.

In June the Federal government initiated a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) to evaluate and implement utility-scale solar energy development in Colorado and five other western states where solar potential is considered highest.

There are two basic types of solar energy installations that produce electricity: photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating thermal solar power (CSP). PV systems use semiconductors to capture and convert sunlight directly into electricity. Most PV applications are less than 5 kilowatts (kW), use little or no land, require no water for system cooling and generate no by-products at the collection site. PV systems are, however, rapidly becoming large scale. The SunEdison plant near Alamosa uses PV to generate 8.2 Megawatts (MW=1000kW) of energy on about 80 acres. New Solar Ventures and Solar Torx are building the world’s largest photovoltaic plant in Deming, NM that will generate 300MW on 3,200 acres.

CSP plants are generally industrial-size systems that use mirrors to focus sunlight to create high temperatures that vaporize water to turn turbines to produce electricity. CSP requires clear skies, flat lands not exceeding a 3% grade and about five acres per produced MW or in excess of 500-acres per 100MW. BrightSource Energy and Pacific Gas & Electric are building the largest CSP project in the world—a 500 MW plant in the Mojave Desert that would cover more than 5,000 acres.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and BLM have identified utility-scale CSP as a “critical component” in meeting its 2015 10,000 MW production mandate.

A major concern with CSP is that it uses enormous amounts of water—nearly as much as nuclear or coal—about 750 gallons per MW hour. This translates into 800-acre feet (or 262.8 million gallons) of water annually for a 40 MW plant. This is a serious resource use conflict in solar rich but water poor desert and semi-arid areas like the SLV where these installations are likely to be sited. At the time of publication, the author is still investigating how much of this water is consumed and recoverable.

Solar is not the only alternative energy being expedited. In 2007, the BLM and US Forest Service initiated a similar PEIS on geothermal energy; the draft is available for public review and comment until Sept. 11. According to this document, Colorado has 6,289,076 acres of BLM land and 15,347,069 acres of Forest Service land suitable for geothermal. NREL identified the San Luis Valley/upper Arkansas Valley as one of the two most promising geothermal areas in the state.

Large-scale, centralized energy generation will also require large transmission systems to deliver electricity to urban centers where demand is greatest.

Under an industrial model, “alternative” energy begins to look like “business as usual” for the San Luis Valley. It will be critical for the public to engage fully in the alternative energy policy process to ensure that it moves forward in a way that is compatible with our vital groundwater, biological and ecosystem resources, traditional economies and long-standing rights of water users in the Valley.

To this end, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) and Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition (WPC) submitted joint comments on the solar PEIS encouraging responsible alternative energy development in the SLV. They will be reviewing and preparing comments on the draft geothermal PEIS this month. To download the reports, go to: http://solareis.anl.gov/index.cfm and: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/energy/geothermal/geothermal_nationwide.html. For more information call 719-256-5780, email info@slvwater.org or visit slvec.org or slvwater.org.

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