CB council supports an Avalanche Park solar farm development

Project not cheap but will help meet Climate Action Plan goals

[ by Mark Reaman ]

The Crested Butte Town Council is ready to continue moving toward planting a major solar farm on its Avalanche Park property just south of town.

The council heard from staff on Monday, along with representatives of the Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) and Outshine Energy, a Denver company awarded a bid by the GCEA to explore such a solar array on between four and eight acres of the land near the current Baxter Gulch trailhead. At its December 7 meeting, the council will consider granting a 30-year lease of the property to Outshine.

The initial proposal calls for Outshine to construct a 1.1-megawatt solar project. That would produce twice as much electricity as is used by the town government, so it would meet the town’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for town operations by 50 percent by 2023. Other GCEA clients could purchase some of the electricity produced by the solar panels as well.

The council would lease the property at little to no cost and would be responsible for some avalanche mitigation work; moving the Baxter Gulch trailhead; taking down some of the pine trees on the edge of the property that are infested with beetles; and paying back some money to its RETT (Real Estate Transfer Tax) fund that was used to originally purchase the land.

The town would also expect to pay between $5,300 and $21,000 per year for Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to offset its municipal electricity accounts. That would be on top of the approximate $138,000 annual electric costs the town currently pays GCEA. Crested Butte this year also picked up approximately $12,000 for the Green Energy program for every citizen living in Crested Butte, so town spends about $150,000 annually on electric costs.

Crested Butte finance director Rob Zillioux explained the new annual electricity cost with the solar array will be in the same ballpark in the future as what will be spent this year.
“What is most important is the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, a primary driver of global warming,” Zillioux said. “To put the project in that perspective the solar farm would produce around 2,086,000 kWh of electricity per year with renewable energy instead of coal or natural gas. It would roughly save 1,476 metric tons of CO2 per year, which would equate to: taking 319 passenger vehicles off the road for one year; lowering coal burning by 1,625,121 pounds per year; providing 170 homes energy use for one year; or charging 188,095,418 smart phones per year.”

The solar farm project would have to go through Gunnison County’s Land Use Regulation review process.

“We’re not getting free electricity from this,” said mayor Jim Schmidt. “We’re getting a renewable source of energy for some of the town’s energy needs.”

Town planner Mel Yemma said while the solar farm was more expensive than just purchasing RECs, there was a benefit in knowing that the renewable energy was being sourced locally.

Town manager Dara MacDonald noted too that buying RECs from an existing project doesn’t bring more renewable energy online so building a solar farm helps in the bigger sustainable picture.

“This would be energy purchased from your own backyard,” added GCEA strategy execution specialist Matt Feier.

Outshine owner and lead partner Taylor Henderson said the company was excited to be part of the project. “We applaud the town for its Climate Action Plan and feel fortunate to be pursuing the project,” he said.

Henderson indicated it would cost his company between $1.5 million and $2 million to build the array. He said snow shed on the panels should not be a big problem and indicated the panels would rotate to follow the sun and would be about six feet off the ground.

Council members Mona Merrill and Mallika Magner pondered whether a small tent camping area could be included nearby on the property. Mayor Jim Schmidt said when the town looked at camping potential on the land, the state was requiring accel-decel lanes on Highway 135 and that made it very expensive. Plus there is no water or sewer on the property.

“With this property it would be difficult to accommodate both,” added Yemma. “If council wants to use it as a campground, the costs are pretty prohibitive but let us know if that’s the direction you prefer.”

“Given the costs, I think it is one or the other, and I like the solar project,” said council member Laura Mitchell.

“While Tri-State has made some announcements about what seems like a pretty good direction recently, this lets us control a little more of our destiny,” added council member Will Dujardin.

The rest of the council expressed comfort with proceeding down the solar farm path as well. They will review a lease at their next meeting in December. If all goes smoothly, the solar farm could start producing energy by the fall of 2022.

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