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A community in San Miguel County unites against a proposed solar farm

 More than 200 members of the community gathered at the Lone Cone Library in Norwood on Tuesday, May 16, for a presentation on a proposed solar farm just outside of town.
Julia Caulfield
More than 200 members of the community gathered at the Lone Cone Library in Norwood on Tuesday, May 16, for a presentation on a proposed solar farm just outside of town.

The Lone Cone Library in Norwood was packed on Tuesday, May 16.

More than 200 members of the community are meeting for a presentation on a proposed solar farm just outside of town.

The solar farm, Wright’s Mesa Solar Project, is 100 megawatts built on roughly 600 acres over 4 parcels of land on Lone Cone Road.

OneEnergy Renewables, the company proposing the project, was in Norwood to host the meeting.

“All this information has been public for ten days,” said Nathan Stottler, Associate Director for Project Development at OneEnergy Renewables.

“We put out a little bit to get people interested, to get everyone to the meeting. We’re hoping to be as transparent as possible."

But, the welcome was less than warm.

“You’ve given us ten days, but how many days have you been working on it?” One man asks from the crowd.

Stottler replied, “Please hold your comments to the end. You can chew me out in about 30 minutes.”

Stottler says while he understands not everyone will agree, solar is an ideal renewable energy source in Colorado.

“Solar is a really great Colorado product, as everybody here knows, we get a ton of sunshine in Colorado, a really great solar resource, and one of the reasons OneEnergy chooses to work here,” he said.

“Colorado is also interested in reaching 100% renewable energy by the end of 2040 and this solar farm would certainly contribute to that.”

According to Stottler, OneEnergy is looking for a temporary permit for the solar farm, lasting 30 to 40 years.

When it comes to the Western Slope, Stottler says Tri-State Generation and Transmission has shown an interest in having renewable energy in the area, and there’s also the land.

OneEnergy is working with one state owned parcel, and several privately owned parcels to build the solar farm.

“We’ve gotten some great suggestions from some folks on where we can stick our solar farm,” said Stottler, to laughs from the audience.

“A lot of y’all suggested further west in San Miguel County, it’s open, no body lives out there. I agree. I would rather put it out there. We looked at that before we ever looked at Wright’s Mesa. We looked in Dolores County. We looked in Montezuma County and the wide open spaces out there. So much of that land out there is Gunnison sage grouse habitat which makes it unbuildable. As an endangered species, that land is untouchable for us,” he said.

The land also allows OneEnergy to join in with an already existing transmission line.

“There are many transmission lines in the country,” said Stottler.

“Very few on the West Slope, and those that are there, a lot of them, the energy capacity that moves along those lines are already spoken for.”

When it comes to local benefits to the community, Stottler pointed to nearly $8 million in property taxes to the county over the life of the project, influx of dollars while the project is being built, and lease money for the property going to Colorado schools.

But during public comment, lasting over an hour, residents of Norwood were not sold.

“OneEnergy has not handled a project of this size. We are not the place for you to learn how to do your business,” said one man.

“This community has been screwed more than once by the Eastern Slope. We don’t see that $9 million for our schools. We don’t see any of that stuff,” said another woman.

“You can talk to us all you want about these big tax benefits. They don’t benefit us. Telluride will get the property taxes, and the Eastern Slope is going to get the school taxes. We won’t see it.”

One woman shared “The Town doesn’t have capacity to meet the needs. I don’t know what your traffic control plan is going to be coming up Norwood Hill. Where are you going to put your people? How are you going to get them here? And how are you not going to ecologically and economically devastate this community for large industrial benefit. It doesn’t benefit us. It benefits your pocketbook.”

Another man joked, “I’m a citizen. I’m a father. Husband. Business owner. But really I’m the only person in here you need to worry about, because I just found out I identify as a sage grouse.”

“While solar farms undeniably contribute to mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is crucial to consider the negative impacts as well. Finding a balance between renewable energy generation and minimizing economic and public disturbance should be your priority,” said one man.

“This project is pushed and desired by people on the east side of our county. But they do not want this project on the east side. They cannot even stand the possibility of affordable housing in the Telluride area. We are not their dumping ground.”

Finally, one member of the audience says the issue is not an ideological one.

“If that was slated to be a coal mine, and they were going to strip mine that, all the same people would be in the same room opposed to it. It is not ideological. The issue that I see here is that you came into a community and came in here without our input.”

OneEnergy plans to submit its proposal to San Miguel County in the next several weeks. The project needs approval from the San Miguel Planning and Zoning Commission and the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners to move forward.

OneEnergy hopes to construct the solar project in the next 3 to 4 years.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.