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Potato beds turn to solar farms in Colorado

By Sammy Fretwell, The State (Columbia, S.C.) –

ALAMOSA, Colo. — Brilliant sunlight hits the San Luis Valley virtually every day, making the sparsely populated area one of the nation’s hot spots for solar power.

Until a few years ago, no one thought much about solar farming in this community of potato beds, snow-capped mountains and cattle ranches. But with cropland drying up, valley leaders began looking at sun power to help the local economy.

Since 2007, industrial-scale solar farms have replaced about 1,000 acres of dusty farmland, created several hundred construction jobs and generated some $600,000 in new taxes for Alamosa County, local officials say.

“Some farms had lost their water rights and were going back to dry land, kind of a wasteland,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen. “These solar farms came in and were able to backfill a lot of the property taxes.”

The conversion from desiccated crop land to solar farms has been a source of pride to business leaders, who say it has helped blunt the impact of a water scarcity on traditional farming. Questions have arisen about aesthetics and wildlife passage through the fields, but even some environmentalists support the valley’s solar farms.

The growth of solar farming in the San Luis Valley results not only from bountiful sunshine, but also from generous tax incentives and a measure approved by voters eight years ago, say local leaders and power company spokespeople.

In 2004, voters made Colorado the first state in the country to mandate that a percentage of its energy come from solar, wind or other renewable sources. Today, 28 other states have such a requirement; most Southern states do not.

Statistics show that energy companies have spent $340 million on projects in Alamosa County, a panoramic spot between Santa Fe, N.M., and Denver that borders the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Alamosa County today has four privately owned, industrial-scale solar farms and two others on the drawing board. The area, with a half-million acres and just 15,000 residents, also has been targeted for the development of public land for solar power plants.

A drive north from Alamosa reveals large open fields of solar farms filled with panels. The panels point at the sun, rotating as it moves, to catch the most direct rays. Solar farms cover anywhere from 80 acres to nearly 300 acres apiece.

In Colorado, renewable energy corporations, such as Iberdrola Renewables and SunPower, have acquired property to build and operate solar farms. One farmer told The New York Times the $880,000 he received for 320 acres was enough to establish a retirement plan for his mother.

Renewable energy companies acquiring the land make money by selling power to utilities that need to meet the state’s 30 percent renewable power requirement. These renewable energy companies also sell credits they receive for producing sun power and get federal tax breaks.

Gabriel Romero, a spokesman for in-state utility Xcel Energy, said Colorado’s renewable energy mandate has had minimal impact on power bills, no more than pennies on the dollar.

While no one around here expects — or wants — solar farms to replace most agriculture, many say the solar complexes are nonpolluting resources for the local economy. Coal and nuclear plants generate air emissions or toxic waste.

But some people say fields full of solar panels are an ugly sight, while others question whether the fenced-off sun farms will keep wildlife from moving freely through the valley. A plan for a big farm several years ago north of Alamosa drew complaints because of the scale and location near sensitive wetland. Meanwhile, a new power line needed to continue the growth of solar farms remains a point of contention.

Claire Barker, a goat farmer who lives near a sun farm outside the town of Mosca, said she thinks the San Luis Valley has enough of what she calls “solar industrial complexes.”

“I can’t say, ‘Let’s get rid of farms and go solar,’ ” she said. “I’m much more in favor of an agricultural ambience. This is good ranch country and good hay country.”

Environmentalist Chris Canaly, who heads the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, said she wishes the community had known more about solar farms when they were proposed. But she classifies herself as a supporter of the industry because she said it produces clean energy.

County Commissioner Allen isn’t surprised.

“I knew this was going to help my county,” he said of the Alamosa area, which receives less than 8 inches of rain annually. “I knew about our water situation, and I just thought it was a little marriage made for us. It’s a clean industry and just excellent to work with.”

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