EAGLE — A solar farm proposal for 5 acres east of Eagle moved forward with hesitant approval from Eagle County commissioners on Tuesday.
The property is owned by Red Mountain Land. Arion Energy of Boulder is leasing the parcel with plans to start building a 359 kilowatt solar array by the end of the year to qualify for an incentive with Holy Cross that expires otherwise.
“Holy Cross wants it producing by July, and we have to start building the array by the end of 2013,” said Tim Olsen, Arion VP engineer.
The special use permit is required for any system that is 300 kilowatt or greater, and this will be the first solar farm in Eagle County if everything goes through.
Commissioners Sara Fisher, Jill Ryan and Kathy Chandler-Henry all expressed some reservations about approving the project under such hasty terms. They noted that Olsen and Arion CEO Nick Azari didn’t demonstrate a thorough understanding of Eagle County geography in their presentation.
“I want to be in favor, but it feels like we’re missing some of the information,” Chandler-Henry said during deliberation.
Another concern is that the county planning commission did not make a recommendation for approval because of a split vote.
However, in light of the time constraints and limited opportunities for solar farms in the valley, the commissioners granted the permit with several conditions.
“The array has to be on private land near a power line and on even ground that gets lots of sun,” Azari said. “The land also cannot be too expensive or it becomes cost-prohibitive, so there are not many places for this here.”
The 5-acre property is a triangular parcel bordering the north side of Interstate 70 near Red Mountain Ranch. The solar panels will only take up about 3.5 acres, and the highest point of each panel will be no more than 8 feet from the ground.
“Most of the land where the solar panels will be is in a depression that sits lower than the interstate, so most of the panels will be out of view,” Azari said, showing photos of different vantage points where the panels would be.
Conditions for the permit include:
• A winter closure for deer and elk that use the sage and juniper landscape during the snowy months;
• A 200-foot buffer from an access point for wildlife in the fence along I-70;
• Reseeding any land disturbed during construction;
• Steps to camouflage the solar panels as much as possible;
• Written confirmation from the Colorado Department of Transportation that reflectivity from the solar panels will not be a problem for traffic on I-70;
• Agreements for Arion to dismantle the array or give Eagle County first right of refusal if and when the 20-year Holy Cross contract expires.
Ryan said her decision was helped by the fact that Holy Cross selected Arion and this proposal was not coming out of the blue.
“I do feel good that you were vetted by Holy Cross,” she said.
John Helmering, a real estate agent in the valley who is involved with the Gypsum biomass power plant, spoke in favor of Arion’s proposal.
“Solar is the only renewable energy that is completely passive,” he said. “There aren’t many opportunities for it here, and if you don’t approve this today, it’s probably not going to happen. There is very little money in these deals and it’s hard to find anyone willing to do a project of this size.”
Eric Eves, of Red Mountain Land, said the property is otherwise unusable, and he thinks the visibility will showcase the county’s environmental efforts.
“It was a big task to get the landowner to commit to a 20-year lease, which barely covers the legal fees associated with this,” he said. “This is me trying to get this done because I believe in it.”
Olsen said Arion would welcome educational field trips to the site.
“This is the first solar project with the county that hasn’t come along with a request for money from us,” Fisher said. “I hope this will be a positive first step as an example of how property owners can work together.”
“This is the first solar project with the county that hasn’t come along with a request for money from us. I hope this will be a positive first step as an example of how property owners can work together.”
Eagle County commissioner