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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!