WHEN you drive across the expansive high mountain desert that is the San Luis Valley, you see acreage once irrigated through groundwater pumping wells now lying fallow. It’s a sight particularly evident in the central and western end of the Valley through Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties, where the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin struggles from depletion due to overpumping of groundwater and decades of drought.

It’s one reality of the changing landscape that is on the minds of county officials and state leaders who represent the Valley and are trying to address ways the six-county region can at least partially replace some of its lost agricultural economy.

Another reality on the minds of local leaders is the fact that the San Luis Valley remains vulnerable to natural disasters and large-scale emergencies because there is no redundant power source to keep the Valley moving.

The vulnerabilities were demonstrated most recently both during the Spring Creek Fire in 2018 and the Boulder County fire of last December. In both situations the Valley lost critical power transmission and had no redundant system for backup power generation.

These realities are pushing local leaders to step before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) this month to say the San Luis Valley is interested in joining efforts of utility companies and the state to generate more renewable energy.

The clock to get involved is running, with the CPUC setting a Dec. 30 deadline to hear from interested parties on renewable energy and transmission development. Alamosa County, for one, is planning to step forward and raise its hand to let the Colorado Public Utilities Commission know that it has an interest in renewable solar generation and transmission development in the San Luis Valley.

“If we miss this and don’t act now, we will no longer be in the discussion and that’s actually what’s happened in the past,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Lori Laske.

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Sen. Cleave Simpson talks about renewable energy, water and the upcoming 2023 Colorado Legislative session in this episode of the Valley Pod.

“My concern is the redundancy and the safety of our Valley,” Laske said. “Second is with a larger (transmission) line to export our solar because right now we are maxed out with what we have.”

State Sen. Cleave Simpson and the local office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet have been convening local leaders this fall to work through initial conversations and to understand the opportunity the CPUC has created through what is known in the bureaucracy as a miscellaneous docket proceeding.

“The PUC is saying there’s value in evaluating the potential for solar generation and transmission in the Valley,” Simpson said.

The business case to be made is that from a solar perspective, the San Luis Valley produces 10 percent more power per solar panel than anywhere else in the state due to its base elevation of 7,500 feet and more days of sun than the Front Range and anywhere else in Colorado.

That’s according to Mike Krueger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, a nonprofit that is working with Valley leaders to get in front of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

“The Valley is the single best place in the state to produce those electrons,” Krueger said. 

“If you had the ability to export the generation from the Valley, you’d see I would suggest thousands of acres across the six counties that would be able to support solar down there. Literally the only thing stopping people is you can’t get the power out.”

Solar array on the Valley floor with bright sun reflecting off the panels.

The San Luis Valley produces 10 percent more power per solar panel than anywhere else in the state due to its base elevation of 7,500 feet and more days of sun than the Front Range and anywhere else in Colorado.

KRUEGER figures landowners could command lease payments anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per acre for solar development. Simpson said at that price, there would be a market in the Valley to generate more solar power.

In the Valley there is plenty of nonproductive ag land as a result of groundwater wells being permanently shut down in recent years, and more on the way.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Directors is working through a set of criteria to help local farmers and ranchers apply for money to permanently retire more groundwater wells through the Groundwater Compliance Fund established through state legislation sponsored by Simpson.

Valley irrigators are expecting to tap into $30 million set aside through the state Groundwater Compliance Fund that could retire another 10,000 to 20,000 acres of irrigated farm land. It’s the need to permanently retire groundwater wells and continue to reduce the amount of crops produced in the San Luis Valley that has Simpson and others searching for alternatives.

“This community should come together and say to the PUC ‘This is a huge resource, we want this resource to be developed, you decide where it should go. Where’s the most benefit to the state of Colorado and the (power) system?’” Simpson said.

It’s a consensus that he and the local staff to Sen. Bennet have been working to build. Alamosa County is expected to formally get involved and take the Valley’s case to the CPUC.

“The cards are all lined up to go ‘Colorado has this expectation of being carbon-free, so does Tri-State, so does Xcel, and you have this resource here, we just don’t have any place to go with it,” Simpson said. “I think this is a window of opportunity that isn’t going to be here forever.”

Once you generate and store the solar, and you’ve established a redundant system of power for the San Luis Valley itself, it’s then transmitting the renewable solar energy for Xcel and Tri-State to use that makes the proposition tricky and challenging.

That’s a battle for down the road. For now it’s signaling to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that the San Luis Valley wants to be involved in generating renewable energy and new transmission routes out of the Valley.

Krueger calls it YIMBY: A move to say “Yes In My Back Yard.”

PHOTOS: A solar farm off CO 17 in Alamosa County. Photos by Owen Woods.

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