The Pitkin County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the development of a new solar farm near Woody Creek on Wednesday evening. The decision came after an extensive special meeting that featured the presentation of studies of the project’s potential impacts to the area and a lengthy public comment period.
Experts and stakeholders responded to questions about the environmental and aesthetic impacts of a solar farm in the area. Following their detailed presentations, the public comment period included a bevy of opinions from residents. Many in favor of the solar farm cited the benefits of renewable energy.
“I can’t help but think about how how hypocritical this will come off,” said Chris Davenport during public comment. “When we talk about sustainability and we talk about climate change and we try to be leaders, if we do not pass a solar project that, in my opinion, is kind of being served up on a silver platter.”
Many of those expressing opposition were residents of the area near the proposed development site.
“Last time I was here I told you it looked like a malignant melanoma,” said Brush Creek resident John Pappas, referring to his comments from a previous meeting. “I stand by that figure and I stand by that comment. This thing is hideous to look at. It’s glass. There will be glare, and lots of glare.”
The land on which the project will be built is owned by the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, which used it as a biosolid disposal site from 1974 to 2005. Now, the Sanitation District sees the installation of a solar farm as a productive way to use land with such a former purpose.
A representative for Renewable Energy Systems, a global company collaborating on the development of the solar project, mitigated concerns that digging in the area would release hazardous biosolid remnants into the air.
That representative, Conor Goodson, also addressed hotly-debated concerns that solar panels would cast disruptive amounts of glare on nearby homes and passing aircraft. He pointed to a comprehensive analysis which showed that glare would not reach any homes and received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. The solar farm will be near the path of aircraft taking off from Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.
Jonathan Lowsky, a wildlife ecologist at Colorado Wildlife Science and former wildlife biologist for Pitkin County, addressed the solar project’s potential to interfere with wildlife habitat. He concluded that the biosolid disposal site, which had been re-vegetated with non-native grasses, did not play a significant role as wildlife habitat. His presentation included findings from his studies on the presence of birds in the area, as well as deer and other ungulates and their droppings.
Bryan Hannegan, president and CEO of Holy Cross Energy, rationalized the utility’s choice to develop a solar farm on the site. He pointed to a poll in which 69% of Holy Cross customers surveyed said they wanted renewable energy from a community-based solar project. The eventually-authorized site, he said, was chosen out of more than 20 potential locations. It was favored for its proximity to existing Holy Cross infrastructure, which would allow the utility to minimize expensive and permit-restricted digging to install extra lengths of underground cables.