A Solar Boom: Who Owns It?

Who has power in the high, sunny expanse of southern Colorado’s rural San Luis Valley?

As I note on Friday in an article in The Times, it’s something of a trick question, complicated by the many shades of meaning that the word “power” conveys – from electrical to political to financial. And the story of the valley and its wrestling match/debate over a big power line project encompasses them all.

The 140-mile-long line, in planning for more than a decade, was envisioned as a sort of belt-and-suspenders support system for an underserved area. The valley and its biggest town, Alamosa, get their power from only one direction, over a high-mountain pass, and the new line would add redundancy to the local grid, planners said, thus easing chronic shortages and brownouts by creating a loop and bringing in power from another direction.

But then the solar power industry discovered the valley, which has a combination of clear skies and cool temperatures that solar designers like. At the same time, Colorado began to aggressively increase its statutory rules for renewable energy. Since a new boost this spring by the legislature, the state now has one of the highest requirements in the nation, with a 30 percent renewable energy mandate by 2020 for investor-owned utilities.

But what really complicated the local power equation was the alliance that arose to fight the proposed electricity line: a billionaire hedge fund manager on the one hand who didn’t want the line crossing his ranch and a group of local-power enthusiasts on the other who disliked the idea of giant solar farms shipping power out.

Those residents argued instead for a local system of smaller-scale solar, produced and used in the valley – echoing the hippie-tinctured back-to-the-land ethos that began in San Luis in the 1970’s and 1980’s when solar water heaters and clunky roof panels first developed barnyard cachet.

Last month, the lead utility on the line project, Xcel Energy, threw up its hands and said the delays in building the line – which it blamed on the billionaire, Louis Moore Bacon, and his team of lawyers – had potentially derailed the plans for big-time solar in the valley and that it was rethinking its resource allocations in meeting the renewable energy law.

Who owns the valley’s solar boom, and whose ox gets gored or not in making that boom happen, is now more of a tense issue than ever.

By KIRK JOHNSON/NYT

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