Colorado counties’ halts on large solar energy projects are slowing progress toward state’s climate goals

For more than 50 years, Scott Snyder’s family has grazed cattle on a 600-acre parcel of leased land on Wright’s Mesa, a 7,000-foot plateau ringed by southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

In the spring, the family brings cows and their new calves to the sunny, level parcel of sagebrush plain and pinyon-juniper woodlands. Their bulls winter on the land, close to their ranch headquarters outside Norwood.

At first, the Snyders weren’t too worried when a clause appeared in their lease with the Colorado State Land Board. It said their use of the parcel would be terminated if the county government approved a solar project on the land.

“Then it kind of snowballed and caught fire,” Snyder said.

That parcel is now the proposed site for a large solar farm that is opposed by Snyder and many in neighboring Norwood who don’t want solar panels on the beautiful, tranquil mesa. The opposition prompted San Miguel County to enact a moratorium on large solar development — one of several such temporary local bans across Colorado.

The fast expansion of large-scale solar projects, fueled in part by record federal investment, has prompted a wave of county governments to pass moratoriums on the construction of new facilities, often in response to local opposition. In the last two years, at least 10 counties in the mountains and on the Eastern Plains put temporary halts in place.

More than 40% of the state’s 4,112 megawatts of installed solar power were built last year, the vast majority from utility-scale projects. Solar facilities now provide 9% of the state’s electricity and generate enough energy to power more than 838,000 homes, according to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

But to meet Gov. Jared Polis’ goal of using 100% clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, the amount of solar power will need to quintuple, according to state officials.

To reach that level, companies will need to roll out large-scale solar facilities, which require sunny tracts of land that are broad, flat, cleared of trees and close to transmission lines. Land meeting all of those criteria can be found in rural communities on the Western Slope, but some oppose giving up agricultural land — and ceding land with a cherished undeveloped nature.

Snyder isn’t opposed to solar. He’s attempted to lease other parcels he owns on the west side of San Miguel County to solar companies. But he questions why this project should go here, in his backyard, on the land he’s grazed since he was in middle school.

Across the state, few of the local opposition movements to solar projects are about party politics or the concept of solar energy, said Mike Kruger, the CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association. Instead, they’re typically about local concerns, he said, and NIMBYism, which stands for “not in my backyard.”

“The reactions are: ‘I love solar, I just don’t love it here,’ ” he said.

Lone Cone Peak can be seen from Wright's Mesa near Norwood Colo., Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)
Lone Cone Peak can be seen from Wright’s Mesa near Norwood on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)

“Congratulations, hillbillies”

The solar proposal outside of Norwood would build panels on approximately 600 acres across three parcels of private land and the state land trust parcel leased by the Snyder family. The solar company, OneEnergy, is in talks with power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association to sell the electricity produced by the facility, according to the project website.

Cattle can’t graze land used for solar, but the company has said it would allow sheep to graze the land. Once the project has reached its end, the company said all the land would be returned to agricultural use.

A town meeting with company representatives last year featured strong resistance from everyone in attendance, Norwood Mayor Candy Meehan said.

It was the largest meeting in the town’s recorded history, she said.

“They came in like it was already a done deal, like: ‘Congratulations, hillbillies. Here’s how it’s going to be,’ ” Meehan said. “It didn’t respectfully take into consideration the nuances of our community as a whole.”

Norwood Mayor Candy Meehan stands for a portrait in Riverbottom Park in Montrose, Colorado, on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)
Norwood Mayor Candy Meehan stands for a portrait in Riverbottom Park in Montrose on Thursday afternoon May 23, 2024. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)

Residents of Norwood, population 536, are not opposed to solar and recognize the need for renewable energy, Meehan said. But they do oppose industrial development in their small, rural town, which is about 33 miles northwest of Telluride, the larger resort town that serves as the county seat.

Construction alone would be a major disruption for Norwood, which has three full-time emergency medical workers and a grocery store the size of a large convenience store.

“We live where we live for a reason — we like the land the way it is,” the mayor said.

In response to the outcry on Wright’s Mesa, San Miguel County in May 2023 enacted a six-month moratorium on all commercial and utility solar permitting to allow time to update its regulations. Twice, county commissioners have voted to extend the moratorium, which now lasts until November 15.

The opposition and resulting county moratorium have pushed back the timeline of the Wright’s Mesa project by at least two years. OneEnergy had hoped to begin construction in early 2024, said Nathan Stottler, its associate director for project development.

Now the earliest likely would be in 2026 — if the county’s new code is workable for the project.

“The county, much to their credit, are being very careful and thorough in drafting their code,” he said.

A sign opposing a proposed solar installation is seen off County Road 43ZS near Norwood on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)
A sign opposing a proposed solar installation is seen off County Road 43ZS near Norwood on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)

A slew of moratoriums

As of November, 39 Colorado counties had adopted detailed solar land-use regulations, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. Other counties did not have solar regulations, had non-specific solar rules or were under a solar development moratorium.

“The cumulative effect is a wide variety of potential regulations for utility-scale solar in Colorado,” the report states.

A patchwork of county permitting processes and requirements can frustrate developers working on multiple projects in the state, Kruger said, but it’s ultimately workable if the rules don’t change.

“What we can’t have, from an industry perspective,” he said, “is have developers do all the work and then the community objects to the project — then the county commissioners go back and rewrite the rules.”

As of October, 143 utility-scale solar projects have been built in Colorado, within 28 of its 64 counties, according to a report by NREL. Combined, they produce about 1,900 megawatts of electricity.

But at least 505 megawatts’ worth of potential large solar projects have been killed or delayed since 2018, at least in part because of community pushback, according to a Denver Post analysis.

The details of the proposed projects vary, but many communities faced with the potential of a large-scale solar farm as a neighbor voice similar concerns: aesthetics, reduced property values, the loss of agricultural land and a shift away from traditional rural culture.

In other places, projects were able to proceed despite residents’ original concerns.

“Most communities that we engage with, we can find solutions,” Kruger said.

A proposed 472-acre solar farm five miles east of Delta faced vehement opposition when it began the permitting process in 2021. Delta County commissioners at first denied the 80-megawatt facility, called the Garnet Mesa Solar Farm.

Months later, the commissioners reconsidered, in part because the developers agreed to continue irrigating the land and allow about 1,000 sheep to graze under the panels. In August 2022, the commissioners approved the project. But the ordeal prompted them to enact a moratorium on new solar development from September 2022 to September 2023.

Moratoriums don’t necessarily result in regulations that are hostile to solar. Mesa County commissioners on April 22 approved new solar rules that “won praise from nearly all sides of the issue,” according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

The importance of personal property rights and the right to build solar on private property seemed to resonate with the commissioners, said Tom McCloskey, a volunteer with Western Colorado Alliance who advocated on the new regulations.

“People talk game about personal rights and what we can and can’t do, but then sometimes people impose things that are the opposite of what they stand for,” he said.

A composite panoramic image shows sagebrush and other trees and shrubs growing on a mesa that overlooks the Norwood valley on Thursday, May 23, 2024, near Norwood, Colorado. A proposed solar installation would alter this land and the view of the valley. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)
A composite panoramic image shows sagebrush and other trees and shrubs growing on a mesa that overlooks the Norwood valley on Thursday, May 23, 2024, near Norwood, Colorado. A proposed solar installation would alter this land and the view of the valley. (Photo by William Woody/Special to The Denver Post)

Colorado not alone

Colorado is not the only state where local governments hold great sway over the future of utility-scale solar and other renewables.

At least 15% of counties across the country have enacted regulations that permanently or temporarily halt the development of utility-scale renewables, an investigation by USA Today found.

“In nearly every state, local governments have enacted laws and regulations to block or restrict renewable energy facilities, and/or local opposition has resulted in the delay or cancellation of particular projects,” according to a study published in May 2023 by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Local impediments to solar have prompted some states to enact laws restricting local jurisdictions’ power over the issue. The New York legislature in 2020 transferred permitting power for large-scale solar and wind projects from counties to the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting. Michigan and Illinois passed similar laws.

A Colorado state senator considered pursuing such a measure here, then opted to introduce a bill that will direct state resources to local governments instead of attempting to supersede their authority. Senate Bill 212, signed into law Tuesday by Polis, directs the state to provide technical support for the development of renewable energy, establish best practices to minimize impacts to wildlife and create a library of model regulations.

Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat and primary sponsor of the bill, said he would be watching the rollout of local solar policies.

“By and large, Colorado has done a good job of getting this done at the local level,” Hansen said, citing Weld County as an example of a county with a productive solar code.

The Brighton Solar field is seen in Pueblo on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
The Brighton Solar field is seen in Pueblo on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

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