Catching the sun

 

This March, a massive photovoltaic panel at SunEdison's Alamosa solar power plant broke loose in a strong wind and began to spin atop its pillar. So plant service technician Joe Valdez, a thick-armed 36-year-old with an easy grin and expertise in everything from alfalfa farming to hydraulics, got creative. He lassoed the sun-sucking device and anchored it to his truck long enough to fix it.

"People ask, ‘Where'd you learn all this?' " he laughs. "Well, my dad was cheap."

Joe, who traces his San Luis Valley roots back to a ranch, and generations further to Spanish settlers and Ute and Apache Indians, was one of the first in the area to take advantage of a looming local solar rush. The San Luis Valley -- a sweeping expanse of sagebrush and farmland hemmed by dramatic mountain ranges -- has been identified as one of the two best spots in Colorado for centralized solar power generation. And utilities, eager to meet their state-mandated renewable energy goals, are talking up plans for a large transmission line that would carry new electricity from the valley across the Rockies to the state's Front Range cities.

So far, the 8.2-megawatt, 80-acre array where Joe works is the only solar plant here. But as other energy proposals begin to materialize -- including industrial-scale concentrating solar-thermal plants that could blanket thousands of acres -- the very size of the projects underscores the size of the problem they're meant to address: climate change.

It's a phenomenon currently rippling across the West, and stories about the big fights brewing over such developments have become familiar staples in the media, including High Country News. It's such a huge subject -- huge problems, huge solutions, and huge battles over what to do and where to do it -- that it can all begin to seem overwhelming. We like to think big, we Americans, and we tend to disregard incremental approaches. When there's a 66,000-pound gorilla in the room, who's going to notice a hamster? But perhaps not every solution to a big problem needs to be as big as the problem itself -- at least, not in the sense you might think.

This special issue attempts to explore how small, local solutions, implemented on a fairly ambitious scale, can fit into our overall efforts to ramp up alternative energy. It's like Joe Valdez lassoing the sun: People you've most likely never heard of, who are using creativity and small-scale, practical problem-solving to tackle big energy problems. With the right incentives and some shifts in the way we think about power generation, their role could grow.

In the San Luis Valley, for example, local governments are exploring the possibility of constructing their own large solar plant that would power local communities and provide new jobs and much-needed revenue. The rural electric co-operative is considering buying into some local solar power. Homeowners and businesses are figuring out how to take advantage of solar-power and energy-efficiency incentives offered by the state (and recently bolstered by the federal government) and utilities. The progress is slow, to be sure, and the outcome uncertain. But you have to start somewhere. Why not start on the ground where you live? Maybe "thinking globally and acting locally" will finally become more than just a catchy bumper-sticker slogan.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.