Crestone Eagle, August 2008:
San Luis Valley ‘ground zero’ for
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.
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
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
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
For more information call 719-256-5780, email firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit slvec.org or slvwater.org.
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