Energy exporters: Stay out of the San Luis Valley

  • Ceal Smith


Before utility executives and solar-energy prospectors discovered the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, it was mostly known for its potatoes, Buddhist hermitages and scrappy water wars. Now our high-desert rift valley is home to a clash between two competing visions for Colorado's renewable energy future.

As utilities and their regulators argue over who is to blame for lagging renewable energy portfolios, a solution can be found right where I live. The San Luis Valley once again points the way towards solar innovation. When the first energy crisis shook the country in the 1970s, back-to-the-land visionaries fired up about solar electricity flocked to the this valley, where cheap land, lax building codes and high-altitude sunny skies offered the perfect solar playing field.

Among them was Marianne North, the daughter of J.K. Ramstetter, an early solar energy inventor from Golden, Colo. Within a decade, North and her small band of solar pioneers had installed over 1,000 solar systems. The many versions including passive, active or hybrid, connected to the electric grid or not, and both air and water-cooled, were all based in the small communities of San Luis, Alamosa and Crestone.

The Solar Energy Research Institute  -- now the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colo. -- credited the San Luis Valley back then with inspiring "an explosion in solar energy resulting in perhaps the highest per capita concentration of solar installations in the country."  Energy sovereignty was a shared goal, driven by an ethos of self-reliance common among the offspring of Spanish and Anglo settlers who colonized this remote Shangri–la in the 1800s.

Over time, solar experiments in the valley grew bigger, bolder and more sophisticated. When the 8 megawatt (MW) SunEdison plant went online in April 2007, the valley became home to one of the largest solar photovoltaic farms in the country. Three years later, the valley is close to generating a whopping 63 megawatts of solar electricity, enough to power 100 percent of the average electricity needs of 50,000 people living on its widely dispersed farms, ranches and small towns. To many of us living here, the valley is doing everything right to become the first grid-supported energy-independent region in the nation.

But not if the utility industry has its way.

One of the country's major electricity suppliers, Xcel Energy, along with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, wants to turn this mosaic of wetlands, sand dunes and Spanish Colonial-era rural farmlands into a solar-energy sacrifice zone. Xcel, which brings power to eight states over 17,335 miles of power lines, thinks big when it comes to solar. Solar power companies are proposing giant collector fields -- as big as 15 miles square -- to fuel its power plants and hook onto the grid. This is an industrial model that's the antithesis of the small-scale, local solar power envisioned by the valley's first energy innovators.

Energy prophet Amory Lovins calls central energy generation the "Victorian steam locomotives" of the new millennium. Here in the San Luis Valley, we propose something better: to distribute community-based power from the sun, with no new powerlines chewing up the scenery. Solar photovoltaics, microturbines, fuel cells and other decentralized clean energy technologies are now evolving faster than you can Google "free the grid."  Collectively, these new micro-grid tools are rendering the energy sovereignty dream a reality.  As prices plummet, slapping solar panels on our sun-baked urban rooftops, parking lots, center pivot corners and other unused lands at the point where the energy is used, is now the cheapest, fastest, smartest and greenest path to a renewable energy future.

But Xcel Energy and Tri-State do not share this vision. Instead, they want to rip a 95-mile, $200 million high-voltage transmission line through the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains to siphon energy generated from the valley's sunshine to Front Range "energy markets," hundreds of miles away.

To an eclectic coalition of solar devotees, farmers, ranchers, scientists, environmentalists, doctors, artists and retirees, this is nothing less than an invasion of solar industrialists. Our goal is to stop the transmission line by banding together: The coalition calls itself the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance. What we support is state-of-the-art microgrid technologies to empower communities within the valley and across the state to generate their own power on the existing grid.

We're working to create a model of sustainability and self-reliance that can inspire other rural communities. We refuse to give that up to become just another example of an energy sacrifice zone.

Ceal Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a biologist, sustainability consultant and member of the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance in Crestone, Colorado.

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

Stay out of the SLV
Sally Keller
Sally Keller
Jun 17, 2010 05:27 PM
Right-on, Ceal. We told Hickenlooper many of the same things when he came to Ft. Garland. The vast majority of the people attending were in opposition to the high voltage transmission lines and Hickenlooper seemed a little surprised. Let's keep making our views public!! Sting has joined us!
Local renewables
Laura Cunningham
Laura Cunningham
Jun 17, 2010 08:34 PM
Yes, Thank you Ceal! This expresses what many of us living in the rural West face and feel, when confronted with large-scale corporate solar and wind projects and their associated huge new transmission lines. Let's consider point-of-use and distributed generation renewable energy more and more instead.
New Transmission Lines or Perpetuating a Carbonized World?
Jun 22, 2010 03:16 PM
Generating nearly all of your electricity in a rural area is admirable-- well done. But it's just not feasible for urban centers to do the same-- either because of their smaller resource base or due to their much greater density. Some of electricity does need to be transmitted in. Building new transmission lines from resource-rich areas of the country to denser and less resource-rich ones seems like an inevitable price to pay to help us all transition away from poisonous fuels.
San Luis Valley Megasolar
Martha Narey
Martha Narey
Jun 24, 2010 09:14 AM
Clearly you don't live in this proposed national sacrifice area. Let's build an enormous solar array in a county near you. I don't suppose you'd consider using less? Fewer toys? Or perhaps you think the answer is just move to a city so you don't have to think about where the energy comes from...
Jun 24, 2010 10:35 AM
I would LOVE a solar array near me-- I'd much prefer that to the coal- and gas-fired power plants and the largest nuclear waste dump in the country. Comparatively, I would hardly call a solar array a sacrifice zone. Of course I'd consider (and am) using less-- I don't have a television, I don't use air conditioning, and I bike and take the bus to work everyday. Renewables can't power the world on the existing grid-- and that's going to impact all of our backyards, fragile wildlife, and connected ecosystems. Now when and if that happens probably matters a lot less to you in the short-term-- probably a lot less than a big solar array and high voltage transmission lines do.
Renewable Energy
Ceal Smith
Ceal Smith
Jul 11, 2010 07:01 PM
At first glance that might appear like a reasonable solution but a closer look reveals several misconceptions. First, the 7-12% advantage of producing solar energy in the San Luis Valley is lost through transmitting those electrons 200 + miles to the Front range urban "demand centers". Not to even mention the millions rate and taxpayers will pay for all that new transmission. There's a reason utility companies (and now politicians) are yelling "build baby build that new transmission" but its not what you think. Utilities make the most money from new transmission so the further away they can put generation the better from the standpoint of their old energy business model. It also keeps Xcel and TriStates meters rolling forward. Even though they resisted mandates, the utility companies have wasted no time in using the "clean/green" marketing card to drum up support for expensive new high voltage lines. A closer look at the facts reveals that its a much better deal for ratepayers and the economy to build smaller scale distributed generation at the point of use. Turns out that Colorado has over 38,000-acres of suitable commercial and residential solar, enough to produce 5,500 MW of solar energy more cheaply and efficiently than turning our remote rural San Luis Valley into a industrial zone. Put solar generation where it belongs - in your, mine and everyone's rooftops, parking lots, road corridors and the thousands of (apparently invisible) vacant urban lands. We all want clean energy, and we can have it without sacrificing our rural communities and remaining undeveloped landscapes. To learn more, visit:
shout out
patricia Jo Bungert
patricia Jo Bungert
Jun 25, 2010 10:34 AM
"Solar photovoltaics, microturbines, fuel cells and other decentralized clean energy technologies are now evolving faster than you can Google "free the grid." Collectively, these new micro-grid tools are rendering the energy sovereignty dream a reality." Now that is an example of some smart, snappy writing!
Energy Exporters Stay Out of the San Luis Valley
Marianne North
Marianne North
Jun 29, 2010 02:26 PM
I appreciate Ceal Smith's recognition of the early solar pioneers of the San Luis Valley, but must point out that I was only one of the widespread, spontaneous combustion of solar enthusiasts who found each other in the late 1970's. My dear late husband Bill built quite a few low-cost collectors on farmer's buildings. Others like Arnie and Maria Valdez, the late architect Akira Kawanabe, Bob and Julie Dunsmore, the late Paul Wise of Antonito, Rich Vendola and Andy Zaug were also solar thinkers and doers. I hope we all can work together to implement sustainable forms of energy so that our nation can be truly energy independent. Marianne North
DG just a piece of the puzzle
Gerald Spencer
Gerald Spencer
Jun 29, 2010 03:30 PM
I agree with Sophia on this one. The REALITY is that centralized generation with new transmission is needed to bring affordable, clean power to population centers and avert MUCH larger and more destructive problems being caused and accelerated by dirty power production. At least with existing and nearly achievable technology. If you believe otherwise, you have bad information.

Distributed generation (DG) is great and is a valuable component of a necessary solution. For the San-Luis Valley to become exemplary in this regard would be excellent - but it will fall short of where we need to get as a state and a nation.

The opposition in the San Luis Valley is shortsighted and selfish in my opinion. Those in opposition would rather repel development in THE BEST solar potential area in the state and continue getting their power from dirty coal plants in other people's backyards during a long transition to a lofty DG goal. It's so easy to oppose solar while ignoring where the enrgy you consume all the time comes from.

Some in the Valley are advocating for a very honorable DG solution that potentially could satisfy their valley's energy needs but will do nothing to help the rest of the state transition to renewables. Also, the local DG plan will be a much longer road for a less beneficial (beneficial in the sense of net GHG emissions reductions) result. The bottom line is that both DG and utility scale renewables are necessary and it's a huge disservice to conservation efforts to thwart development in the best solar zone in the state.

Those of us who live in the west need to understand that a local wind turbine, geothermal facility or large solar array with a small impact in our backyard is a small price to pay for moving away from massive coal plants causing unsustainable atmospheric pollution for all and high cancer rates, coal ash storage and mountain top removal in someone elses backyard. This is not at all to say that renewable projects should be fast tracked - they should be approached carefully, no doubt.

I hope I have not offended.

- GS
San Luis Valley solar
Ceal Smith
Ceal Smith
Jul 11, 2010 07:25 PM
G.S. Your comment reflects the conventional thinking that I'm afraid is just plain wrong. It's a simple math problem really: PLUS 10-15% higher insolation values in the San Luis Valley MINUS 7-15% transmission loss (more at higher temperatures) over the 200+ miles to "urban demand centers" = 0 net energy gain over generating solar at the point of use. SUBTRACT the $ millions it will cost to build new transmission and its a very bad deal for ratepayers, taxpayers and the environment but a mighty fine deal for utility companies who get 100% cost recovery PLUS a guaranteed profit for new transmission PLUS income for the MW produced at the point of generation PLUS keeping ratepayers dependent on big utility generation. We've done our homework, now its time you do yours:
San Luis Despoilment
Jul 08, 2010 07:29 AM
The pillage of the San Luis Valley is nothing new. As soon as the Mexican American war was over corporate eastern interests began to take advantage of the local ranchers and sheepherders. This is a historical trend that is fueled by capitalist greed and poor lifestyle choices of "consumers." In its own starke way the San Luis Valley is a rare beauty and I would hate to see it despoiled by mega solar power and wind turbines. We need to remember that the best solutions are more often local solutions. The Front Range cities, from Cheyenne to Albuqureque need to look to themselves to solve their problems of out of control growth and development instead of using the rest of the west to carry the addiction to mega malls, and oversized houses.
San Luis Valley Energy Transportors
Jul 11, 2010 10:35 AM
I just read the article by Ceal Smith and I had to comment. What does sustainability mean to all the individuals mentioned in the article? Sustainable development meets the human needs of today without compromising or depleting the environmental, social and economic resources of the future. If the development of the "Solar Panels" destroys or compromises any part of the environment in the San Luis Valley then it is not sustainable. Why does the little guy always have to be sacrificed? Why destroy a pristine environment? There has to be other methods of transporting energy or developing it without sacrificing the beauty of the San Luis Valley.