March 3, 2022
At a special meeting yesterday Delta County Commissioners denied the development of a 472-acre, 80MW solar farm on Garnet Mesa, 3.5 miles southeast of Delta, with a 2-to-1 vote. While the Planning Commission and county planning staff recommended approval, Commissioners Mike Lane and Wendell Koontz voted against the project, citing the loss of agricultural land and a lack of compatibility.
Guzman Energy announced this development project, known as the Garnet Mesa Solar Project, on May 10, 2021. This is a game-changing solar energy project for Delta County, which would produce over 194,000 MWh of electricity a year, enough to supply energy to 18,000 homes. It’s game-changing, because as you may recall, Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), engaged in a lengthy legal battle to exit its power supply agreement with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in July 2020, so that it could pursue local and renewable energy generation. This is the first local renewable energy project developed in partnership with Guzman Energy and would help DMEA reach approximately 20% local power generation. Importantly, it would keep energy costs down for Delta and Montrose County—utility-scale solar costs 2 cents a kilowatt hour, while coal-generated power is 6 cent a kilowatt hour.
In response to the decision, Guzman Energy and DMEA said in a statement “We are disappointed that the Delta County Board of County Commissioners has denied permitting for the Garnet Mesa solar project. When energy is developed locally, it boosts the area’s economy and further improves the resilience of the local power grid. Blocking this project denies the county ratepayers an estimated $13 million in tax revenue over 15 years, as well as the opportunity to generate affordable and reliable renewable energy.”
Commissioner Koontz referenced incompatibility with Delta County’s Master Plan, which prioritizes agriculture. Commissioner Lane said that he was worried about setting a precedent for turning agriculture land into solar farms. However, neither Commissioner grounded their decision in the County’s regulations. Many of you may recall that when the County revised the Master Plan in 2018, it ensured that the Master Plan would not have legal effect; that it is only advisory. Neither Commissioner provided any legal basis for refuting the County Staff’s 12 findings of compliance with the Land Use Code in its recommendation for approval. Commissioners Koontz and Lane acknowledged the effort the applicant put into the application process, however there was no indication from their comments that they had read the nearly 900-page application packet in conjunction with applicable land use code standards.
While Commissioner Suppes said his reasoning for approving the project is protection of property rights, in his dissent he stated that the project falls within the Land Use Code and was presented properly. One Commissioner voted based on the regulations, the other two did not. Ironically, the stated purpose for adopting a Land Use Code with zoning to replace the previous Specific Development Regulations was to provide predictability and attract investment to Delta County. This decision to deny was lawless (arbitrary and capricious in legal terms) and should outrage every Delta County citizen who believes in the rule of law and some sense of governance in this County.
Putting the legalities aside, this project is about energy independence and resilience for Delta County, a topic that was completely ignored by the Commissioners. In addition, while Commissioners Koontz and Lane expressed concern about protecting agriculture, they made no attempts to recognize that Delta County is in a climate hotspot that has already warmed 2.1 degrees Celsius, the Gunnison River Basin has warmed 1.9 degrees Celsius, that for every 1 degree Celsius of warming the Colorado River shrinks 10%, and has declined 19% in the last 20 years, or that we are in the longest and most severe megadrought in 1200 years, 40% of which is caused by human-caused climate change. The very agriculture they are trying to save is being threatened by fossil fuel extraction that they continue to support. As a member of the Western Rural Local Government Coalition the County has worked towards limiting public health, safety and environmental regulations on oil and gas operations.
This project is not just a solar project, but it is innovative agricultural adaptation to rising temperatures because the solar shade structures give the land a fighting chance it would not have on its own in the scorching heat. Contrary to the Commissioners concern that this project would remove land from agricultural production, the project plans for sheep grazing below the solar panels, which is supported and will be managed by a local farmer. A news story last fall reported the benefits of solar panels for agriculture in Colorado. Researchers at Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Lab have studied how to turn all that otherwise unused land beneath solar panels into a place to grow food. The shade from panels helps the plants near them to thrive. That intermittent shade also meant a lot less evaporation of precious irrigation water. If the Commissioners are concerned about the effects of this project on agriculture they should research this topic thoroughly. Did they contact the CSU research station on Rogers Mesa for advice? Probably not.
Agrivoltaics is the type of innovation that Delta County needs to look to be resilient, energy-independent, and to preserve agriculture. Solar gardens are farms under solar panels in Colorado. California is embarking on a solar canal project to reduce evaporation. If our County had a climate action plan, maybe the decision would have turned out differently.
But the real issue here is a lawless decision that goes against the long-term interests of the County.
Large-scale industrial projects are always complicated and always raise concerns for neighbors. Curiously, when oil and gas projects come before the Commissioners they are quick to cite the economic benefits; but in the case of a renewable solar energy project, the $13 million in tax benefits over 15 years (compared to an estimated $45,000 in property tax revenue based on existing land use over the same time period), lower energy costs and rate stability were completely ignored. Renewable energy jobs are the fastest-growing segment of energy employment. This project would result in more than 300 jobs. Here’s what should have been top of mind for the Commissioners in this land use decision: Adapting to climate change to ensure the viability of agriculture and local food security; local renewable energy resiliency; and compliance with Delta County regulations. This decision sends the signal that Delta County is closed to the energy transition and utility-scale solar.
DMEA has shown courageous and needed leadership for our community. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the County Commissioners.