The solar photovoltaic plant will be owned by SunEdison and located on a 40-acre plot of land southeast of Norwood. SunEdison is based in Beltsville, Md. and develops, operates and monitors solar plants across the U.S., Canada and Europe. The company anticipates breaking ground on the Norwood project in September with construction being completed in December and could be providing power to SMPA power-purchasing members by January 2011. SunEdison will install the modules and will own and operate the plant.
The solar plant will account for approximately 2 percent of SMPA’s annual load. SMPA has contracted to purchase the electricity output from the facility for a 25-year period. The increased cost to SMPA to purchase this renewable energy will be about $300,000 per year, or about 1.5 mils per kWH (a mil is 1/10 of one cent).
“For SMPA’s Board of Directors, taking this step is something to be proud of,” SMPA Board President Wes Perrin said in an interview on Tuesday, adding that as far as he can tell, it is the largest solar power project providing power to an electric co-op in the country. “It is being responsive to our member’s requests.”
SMPA’s Board of Directors conducted a member survey last fall and what was overwhelmingly stated by the co-op’s 9,600 energy consumers was there is need for more renewable energy sources.
“Our members want us to get more energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy projects,” Perrin said. SunEdison subsequently brought the board a solar farm proposal, which the board considered under the terms of a non-disclosure agreement because of possible real estate transactions.
“We were mulling it over for what seems like a year,” Perrin said. “We think that it is a good project and we agreed to sign a contract at our last meeting.”
SMPA Director Rube Felicelli cautioned that SunEdison must still go through the development approval process with San Miguel County but that the project of this sort has been a goal of SMPA for a while.
“This has been in the works since before I became a boardmember [in 2009],” Felicelli said from Washington D.C on Tuesday where he was lobbying on behalf of SMPA for more renewable energy projects. “Everything fell into place in the last month in terms of location and the proposal. We have done survey after survey and talked to our members and the vast majority was clear that they want something like this. This was member driven.”
Ken Barnes, who represents the West End’s District 1 region on the SMPA Board, was the only member of the seven-member board to vote against the agreement with SunEdison, arguing that his constituents feel it is “anti-coal” and “going too green too fast.” The San Miguel Basin-Forum editorialized on April 29 that the decision was improper because it was reached in secrecy and suggested that the move may inspire a movement in the West End to leave the cooperative that was originally founded there.
Perrin responded that the new solar farm will not take jobs away from the West End’s coal industry, either coal mines or at the Tri-State Generation and Transmission-owned Nucla power station. “That coal plant is owned by Tri-State and it is not going to reduce any coal that is going to be mined or burned to create electricity,” he said.
“It’s important to note that the development of the solar facility in the West End will not impact the Nucla station,” said SMPA General Manager Kevin Ritter. “The PV plant will work in tandem with Tri-State’s facility to power the daily lives of our members.”
By contract, SMPA is required to purchase at least 95 percent of its energy from Tri-State and if that percentage were to be increased, another agreement would have to be agreed to by both parties.
Felicelli said that SMPA is also looking at a couple of small hydroelectric projects to add to its renewable energy portfolio as well as a possible geothermal project near Rico. “With this solar project we will be getting close to that 5 percent range and anything above that 5 percent, we are going to have to go to Tri-State,” Felicelli said, adding that SunEdison is buying enough property for a possible future expansion of the two megawatt solar plant but for that to happen SMPA would have to upgrade a nearby substation.