Energy exporters: Stay out of the San Luis Valley

by 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 (hcn.org). She is a biologist, sustainability consultant and member of the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance in Crestone, Colorado.

© High Country News