City considers solar gardens

ALAMOSA — Preparing to “plant” community solar gardens in time to “bloom” next year, an energy firm contracting with Xcel Energy approached the City of Alamosa about leasing two city-owned sites for 12-acre solar projects that would produce 2 megawatts of power.

Tyson Taylor, project consultant with Community Energy Inc., met with city staff and city councilors Wednesday night during a work session to discuss the two potential sites, one on the north side of town and one on the south.

The site Taylor proposed to lease from the city on the north side lies on city ranch property that is currently being used for cattle grazing through the city’s lease with Alan Simpson. The proposed site is west of Highway 17 near property owned by Arnold and Marguerite Salazar, whom Taylor had not yet contacted.

City councilors present for the May 24th work session said they would not be inclined to pursue a lease with Community Energy for a solar farm on the ranch property.

They were receptive to the southern site, however. It would be located on city-owned property near the cemetery off 20th Street near a portion of Century Mobile Park. If the city moves forward with a lease on this property, the council might hold a public hearing or community meeting to get feedback from mobile home park residents, although the city would not be required to do so.

Both areas are zoned agricultural and would not require special planning and zoning permission for this use.

The city would receive $500 per acre per year lease payment ($6,000 annually per 12-acre site), and the lease would be for 20 years. Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks said the city currently has a $10,000 annual lease with Simpson, and he maintains the property covered under that lease.

Taylor said his company would also maintain any property it might lease from the city, for example keeping dust and weeds down and erecting a fence. He said the panels themselves are 7-8 feet high at their highest points. He added that the company would commit to returning the property to its original state if/when the lease was up and the solar garden discontinued.

The council may schedule the solar garden proposal for further discussion during its July 5th meeting. Less than half of the council was present for the Wednesday work session: Alamosa Mayor Josef Lucero and Councilman Charles Griego and Ty Coleman.

Taylor told the council his company is in a bit of a time crunch so would need answers from the city fairly soon in order to either move forward or lose the Xcel contracts. He said the Alamosa sites replace two sites the firm had lined up in Rio Grande County but was not able to pursue there, so the Alamosa proposal was its last chance to fulfill the Xcel contracts, Taylor explained.

“We would plug them into Alamosa or we are going to have to lose some projects,” he said. “This is a ‘hail Mary’.”

He said the community solar gardens offer opportunities for solar energy to individuals and businesses that might not have the room to place solar on their own properties.

“This isn’t power we sell to Xcel,” Taylor explained. “It’s offered to Xcel customers in the city and county. They subscribe to it and they get the power.”

The council discussed whether it might be viable for the city to subscribe to the solar farm power, and Brooks said there are other companies that have approached the city about providing this type of power, so the city would need to go through a competitive process if the council was interested . Taylor said typically if someone hosts a project, “we can offer you a better rate on power,” so he believed his company would come out the winner in a competitive process.

He said that his company plans 12 similar projects around Colorado totaling 234 megawatts in response to a request for proposal Xcel issued last year. He said the company chooses potential sites based on their proximity to substations they can connect to. That is why the company proposed the two city-owned sites, he explained.

Taylor added that the substation in Alamosa has the capacity for 2 megawatts, which is all that could be added at this point.

“We are not looking at any more here. It’s full now.”

Taylor told the council he was not trying to force anything on anyone but wanted to put the proposal in front of the city.

Mayor Lucero said he liked the idea of the south-side site.

“I believe this is an ideal location here,” he said. “We are not utilizing the property for anything.”

(Alamosa Parks & Recreation Director Heinz Bergann added that if the cemetery expanded, it would not be in that direction.)

However, Lucero questioned whether glare from the panels would create problems for residents in the nearby mobile home park. Taylor said the company was willing to put in an opaque fence if necessary.

Taylor added that solar panels are designed to absorb light, not reflect it, so although the glare is not zero, it is minimal.

Councilman Coleman said if the city moves forward with the south-side site, he would like to see a fence erected around the solar farm. He said he was not in favor of the north-side location on the ranch.

City staff who were present for the work session— Brooks, Bergann and Andy Rice from the parks/recreation department and City Public Works Director Pat Steenburg — agreed that the south side site was a good location but the north-side site was not.

“Our perspective is if we can get it there and the residents are OK with it, that’s probably a good location,” Brooks said.

Taylor said if the project moves forward, construction would begin as early as possible next year.