Xcel, Tri-State feel ‘Sting’ of San Luis solar power battle

The problem with massive, utility-scale solar and wind power plants, according to both critics and proponents, is the best places for collecting rays and electricity-generating gusts are often far from Colorado’s major population centers.

The San Luis Valley, for instance, seems ideal for soaking up abundant sun, converting it to power and sending it off to Front Range cities. Land is cheap, it’s flat, wide open and a virtual high-altitude desert blasted by seemingly ceaseless sunshine. But it’s in remote southern Colorado, far from the major metropolitan centers.

That’s led to an epic battle between billionaire hedge fund manager Louis Bacon, owner of the sprawling 171,400-acre Trinchera Ranch, and Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association – utilities that want to run power lines across Bacon’s land. Environmentalists, for the most part, back the utilities.

In case you missed it, Denver Post reporter Jason Blevins did a great job framing the conflict earlier this week.

“One side of the environmental clash paints the 54-year-old hedge-fund-managing land baron and conservationist as a natural-resource champion protecting one of the state’s last unspoiled ranches. The other sees a deep-pocketed NIMBY guarding his own private Eden and thwarting Colorado’s pioneering push for statewide solar energy.”

But make no mistake, there’s plenty of grassroots opposition to the San Luis Valley becoming the state’s new energy industrial center. Check out this recent article on the Colorado Energy News website.

There’s also a broader argument about utility-scale solar – essentially multi-megawatt power plants – versus more distributed generation (home solar and small-scale projects on public buildings and in community “solar gardens.” But some say Xcel and Tri-State frown on developing too much of that capacity because it cuts into their monopolies.

Meanwhile, Bacon seems to be digging in and lawyering up more and more by the day. More from the recent Post article:

“Bacon’s Colorado full-press PR campaign to highlight alternative routes for the transmission line is far reaching. Superstar crooner Sting this summer visited the Denver Art Museum and paused to gaze at a painting of Trinchera’s Mount Blanca, on loan to the museum by Bacon. As if on cue, Sting told a gallery of invited reporters he’d be ‘very upset if there was a huge system of power lines in front of it.’

“’It’s so bizarre to defend ourselves from this big rock-star guy,’ an Xcel spokesman said. ‘It is unusual for us to deal with a landowner who hires his own PR firm and bevy of lawyers.’”

Welcome to the New Energy Economy.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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