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Know the West

Sunshine and transmission lines


Colorado's San Luis Valley sits high (average elevation 7,500 feet) and dry (less than a foot of annual precipitation on the valley floor). It also gets ample sunshine, which inspires plenty of interest in solar energy, especially to generate electricity.

But no matter how "green" the energy source, it's a subject of contention in two separate but related proposals.

One is for a new 140-mile high-voltage power line that would go east from the Valley over the Sangre de Cristo Range in the general area of La Veta Pass to connect with the Front Range grid. 

Power lines image courtesy Flickr user Richard Winchell

Utility officials say it's necessary to give the Valley a more reliable supply. As it is, the Valley's power comes in from Poncha Pass in the north, and like any route through the mountains, it can get hit by bad weather and the like. 

With a second circuit reaching the Valley from another direction, there's an alternate route -- and a reliable supply is important to the Valley's agriculture, which relies heavily on electric-powered center-pivot irrigation. A few hours without power, coming at a bad time, could damage a thirsty crop. An administrative law judge has approved the route.

The catch is that the proposed route crosses the Trinchera Ranch, a large parcel of private property that began as a Mexican land grant and was owned for years by the Forbes family of Forbes Magazine fame. The current owner, Louis Moore Bacon, doesn't want the power line to cross his property -- and he's a billionaire  with resources to fight it. 

Electricity can flow both ways on a power line, though, and the new line could transmit solar-generated electricity from the Valley to markets in the more populated areas of Colorado. 

That's the idea behind a proposal from Tessera Solar to build a generating plant in Saguache County in the north end of the San Luis Valley. This wouldn't be an array of solar panels like the current SunEdison facility in the valley, but a field of SunCatcher generators.

They bear a rough resemblance to radar dishes. They aim themselves at the sun, concentrate the rays, and use the heat to power Stirling-cycle engines (similar in principle to steam engines) that turn generators to make electricity. 

With moving parts, they make noise, which is one reason there's some opposition in Saguache County. There are also questions  about land disruption and scale -- Valley residents seem to prefer small, home-size solar facilities to big industrial export facilities. 

Fair enough, but just about any form of rural economy involves changing the landscape to produce exports. That is, those irrigated pastures for organic natural grass-fed steers aren't "natural," and neither are the barley and potato fields that also produce goods for export. 

So why is it acceptable to change the land to grow crops and critters for outside markets, but not acceptable to do so to generate electricity for outside markets? I do understand wanting to preserve the rural character of Saguache County -- it's one of my favorite nearby places to visit. But on the other hand, life is full of trade-offs, and if you want electricity, it comes at the price of power lines and generating facilities.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.