Lyons residents are voting on whether to allow construction of a solar farm by the skate park in Bohn Park. A “yes” vote would give the town government blank-check approval to solicit a contract for building and operating a utility-scale solar facility.
There are reasons to vote yes, but stronger ones to vote no.
On the positive side, proponents say a solar farm will help reduce Lyons’ greenhouse-gas emissions. However, the town utility is contractually restricted by its Nebraska-based power supplier to generating no more than 5% of its electricity from a municipal solar plant. It must purchase the rest of its power from the supplier, which depends heavily on coal and gas generation.
So, this utility project cannot make much progress towards reducing carbon emissions. Five percent is the cap. This is very little. The project will neither significantly lower utility bills — it could raise them! — nor greenhouse-gas emissions.
Regardless of vote outcome, it will be up to residents and businesses and their rooftop solar installations for Lyons to reach more ambitious solar goals. Rooftop solar is a quick path towards producing a much larger amount of the town’s solar energy. It can reduce utility bills, make rentals more affordable, and reduce business operating costs. Until this past summer, the Lyons town utility provided a standard net metering policy that encouraged it, and the utility’s bottom line had been doing very well.
This summer, however, things changed.
Lyons enacted a rate that removed two-thirds of the rooftop-solar incentive. What had been a dollar-for-dollar credit for feeding solar energy into the grid became 34 cents on the dollar. This was described as a step towards protecting the utility from “too much” rooftop solar. The new policy is far less favorable than in neighboring municipalities.
With that move, the Lyons government put the brakes on rooftop solar installations, long before it had reached anywhere near a high enough percentage to impact the utility’s bottom line.
Why gut the incentive for private solar installations, even while planning a utility solar installation that can provide only 5% of the town’s power? Should voters support these changes?
Solar installations do not have to be controversial. Done right, solar arrays can benefit municipalities. Other communities and regions are proceeding differently. Here are the solar-energy guidelines from just one regional solar planning effort in the Northeast: “1) prioritize development on previously disturbed areas and existing buildings, 2) protect scenic views, 3) protect historic and cultural resources, 4) protect ecological resources, 5) maintain the purpose of conserved lands.”
Under such sensible priorities, this Lyons project would not be encouraged.
Lyons has other options for a municipally owned solar array and battery storage, including more than 2 acres of land and building rooftops at the Lyons public works facility; a 1.3-acre uncovered parking lot by the wastewater treatment plant; and more than an acre of uncovered parking lot in Bohn Park. Expense estimates are needed for each option. If taking parkland is the cheapest approach, then tell the voters this, instead of indicating the park is the only feasible location.
The land itself is an exceptionally valuable asset. It was provided to the town partly through a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, for the purpose of outdoor recreation. The proposed site bounds a recreational path for our community, part of which would now become an access road. Residents and visitors walk there every day; skiers use the path in winter. This land was to be conserved for future residents.
Because of the associated battery storage, this utility solar farm really would be a kind of industrial installation. As a critical facility, it must be insured, fenced and gated; road access must be provided; and it must be protected from trespassers, including at night. A review of the impact on the public’s use of the park is clearly needed before asking voter approval to take this land. Is pedestrian access across this end of the park to be maintained? Will visual impact and glare issues be addressed? Surprisingly, the proposed location was not reviewed by the town’s parks and recreation commission prior to scheduling the vote.
To sum up: The Lyons town electric utility has largely removed a major incentive for rooftop solar, even as a climate emergency has recently been declared by the town board. This is inconsistent with using utility revenues to help build a solar farm.
The excess energy generated by residential and business rooftop solar is one of several powerful paths forward, and the benefits of reduced greenhouse-gas emissions accrue to all. Surely we need to move aggressively towards more renewable energy.
However, decisions involving our town parks and open space also deserve care and public input while we do so. Is this taking of parkland necessary for this purpose; is it the best path forward for reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions?
State law allows a town board to “sell and dispose” of parkland only via a ballot issue, in which “said sale and the terms and consideration thereof” are on the ballot. The parkland certainly will be disposed of, in the sense that it will be taken away permanently from park use.
But voters are not being told the terms. A “no” vote now sends a message: First, go through the normal advisory processes, and present a mature plan — and, especially, a coherent solar policy — so that residents know what they are voting on, and why.
Robert Brakenridge, of Lyons, is a member of the town’s Ecology Advisory Board. He works as a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado.
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