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Solar panels are seen built in rows as part of a large array at a facility in northern Montrose County Sunday February 13, 2022. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A plan to provide solar power to a Western Slope rural electric cooperative ran aground last week when the Delta County Board of Commissioners rejected a zoning change for the 472-acre project, citing concerns over the loss of farmland in the county.

The 80-megawatt solar project proposed by Guzman Energy would have supplied the Delta-Montrose Electric Association with electricity under a power purchase agreement. Guzman has a 12-year contract to provide DMEA with power.

In 2020, DMEA paid a $136.5 million exit fee to get out of a long-term contract with the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, in order to gain local control over electrical resources and develop more renewable generation.

Guzman Energy, an energy contractor and developer, helped DMEA finance its departure from Tri-State. The solar farm on Garnet Mesa, about 3.5 miles miles southeast of Delta, was to be the first major development in the partnership, helping the co-op to reach 20% local generation.

But concerns about the loss of agricultural land and the compatibility of the project, particularly the effect of high-tension power lines, were raised at the March 2 special meeting where commissioners Mike Lane and Wendell Koontz voted against the project.

Kootnz and Lane did not return calls asking for comment.

Don Suppes, the lone commissioner to support the project, said in an interview, “it was unfortunate, but my fellow commissioners had their concerns.”

“Any time you have change, it is hard,” Suppes said. “Not in my backyard is terrible philosophy. … It is a tough issue, but the grid is already under stress and if we don’t figure out some new sources, we are going to be facing a Texas-type problem.”

The Texas electric grid was hit by a major freeze in February 2021 and failed, leading to the loss of power for 4.5 million people and enormous utility bills in the months that followed.

In a presentation to the commissioners, Guzman representatives said that the construction phase of the project would create more than 350 local jobs and generate more than $13 million local taxes over 15 years.

The solar farm would have the capacity to generate 194,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to power 18,000 homes, Guzman said.

In addressing the issue of agricultural land, Guzman representatives said that they would continue to irrigate the acreage and use it for grazing sheep.

“In my opinion they bent over backward to deal with the problems,” Suppes said. “Their plan to irrigate and continue to graze sheep was a great solution, a way to get multiple uses of the land.”

Delta County had 236,846 acres of farmland in 2017, the last year for which U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics are available. The Garnet Mesa project accounts for a little more than a thousandth of the county’s agricultural acreage.

In 2019, 763 people — 7% of the county’s total employment — held jobs in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, according to Data USA.

“We are disappointed that the Delta County Board of County Commissioners has denied permitting for the Garnet Mesa solar project,” Alyssa Clemsen Roberts, DMEA’s CEO, and Robin Lunt, Guzman’s chief strategy officer, said in a joint statement.

“When energy is developed locally, it boosts the area’s economy and further improves the resilience of the local power grid,” the statement said.

Lunt said in an email to The Sun that the decision doesn’t change Guzman’s agreement with DMEA and the Garnet Mesa solar is “an ancillary project to the wholesale supply agreement.”

“For now, we are exploring all of our options,” Lunt said.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe