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A flock of sandhill cranes forage in a field located between G Road and 2100 Road west of Delta Colo., Friday August 5, 2022, in the site of a proposed solar electricity generation project. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The question before the Delta County Commission this month is whether 1,000 sheep can forge a path for dozens of solar panels — after the commissioners rejected a solar project citing concerns about losing farmland.

In March, the commission, on a 2-1 vote, rejected an 80-megawatt solar project covering 475 acres just outside of Delta, proposed by the Denver-based Guzman Energy Group. The project would have provided electricity to the local rural electric cooperative.

The two commissioners opposing the plan, Wendell Koontz and Mike Lane, said they were concerned about the loss of agricultural land in the county.

Guzman Energy has revised its Garnet Mesa project to “specifically address the agricultural and irrigation concerns raised by the community and commissioners,” Amy Messenger, a company spokeswoman, said in an email.

The site will now include “a robust irrigation system” of sprinklers, gated pipes and drip tubes, recommended by Montrose-based Morales Engineering and Consulting, and some 1,000 sheep from a local grower will graze on the fields.

The Delta County Planning Commission has already approved the revised project and the county commissioners are set to vote on it Aug. 16.

“Guzman has made an effort to show this will work,” said Natasha Leger, executive director of Paonia-based environmental group Citizens for a Healthy Community. “No other project in the county has been given the same amount of scrutiny and required the same levels of conditions.”

The Delta-Montrose Electric Association, the local co-op, was helped by Guzman, a wholesale power provider, in financing its $136.5 million exit from the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. Tri-State required the co-op to buy 95% of its electricity from the association.

Guzman received a 12-year contract to provide DMEA with power and the Garnet Mesa project would be the first major development in their partnership and enable the co-op to reach 20% local generation.

“We believe the Garnet Mesa solar project is a meaningful project for our members that will produce local and affordable renewable energy and millions of dollars of tax base revenue,” Kent Blackwell, DMEA’s chief technology officer, said in an email.

DMEA estimates that the installation will pay $13 million in property taxes over the next 15 years.

To address the concerns of Koontz, a former coal industry geologist, and Lane, a former oil field services company employee, about lost farmland, Guzman has contracted with Sperry Livestock Corp. in Delta to manage the farm operations and grazing.

“We expect more than 1,000 sheep to graze on the irrigated fields,” Messenger said.

An area of a proposed solar electricity generation project photographed northeast from the intersection of G Road and 2100 Road west of Delta Colo., Friday August 5, 2022. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Garnet Mesa project accounts for a little more than one-thousandth of the 26,846 acres of Delta County’s farmland in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s last assessment in 2017.

Koontz, in an email, declined to comment since the project is before the commission. Lane did not reply to an email request for comment.

Sheep grazing among solar panels is nothing new. There were more than three dozen solar grazing operations in the U.S. in 2020, mainly in the east, according to the American Solar Grazing Association.

“Sheep are naturally suited to the job of solar grazing,” according to the association’s website. “They enjoy the shade of the solar panels on hot days, napping and grazing where humans would struggle to reach.”

Agrivoltaics — combining solar fields not only with sheep, but also with crops — is a growing trend in the U.S. as large-scale solar projects arrive in rural areas, according to Jordan Macknick, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

For the past six years, Macknick has been overseeing a project experimenting with various agricultural activities on 25 solar sites around the country.

“We are seeing pushback in some rural communities,” Macknick said. “The desire for keeping land in agriculture can be an argument against solar projects.”

Showing that the projects can provide electricity and agriculture opportunities “gives them the social license to operate,” Macknick said. The NREL research has also shown that pairing agriculture and solar panels can yield a dual payoff. 

At the Arizona test site, growing tomatoes in the shade of the solar panels reduced water consumption 30% and doubled the crop yield. At the same time, all the vegetation under the arrays created a “microclimate” that was 9 degrees Celsius cooler, helping to boost solar production by 2%.

Sheep grazing turns out to be a more cost effective and safer way of managing landscaping and weed control than bringing motorized machinery that could damage panels by kicking up rocks or colliding with installations, Macknick said.

Sheep are also set to graze at Lightsource bp’s 300-MW Bighorn Solar Project in Pueblo, Macknick said. The project is on 1,800 acres on the Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel property. The project will provide electricity to the steel mill.

Joe Sperry would be providing the sheep and the management of the animals and property at Garnet Mesa. “I haven’t done anything like this before, but it’s been done in lots of places,” Sperry said.

Sperry said he will likely be rotating the sheep around set areas. “The main thing is to get this designed properly,” he said.

As for Garnet Mesa’s location, Sperry said, “the area is not ideal farming land; it is good for grazing and that’s about it.”

The proposal isn’t just a way of getting a solar project built, Sperry said. ”It works both ways. Ag needs to step up and realize things are changing. If this isn’t ag land it goes to houses and that’s worse,” he said. “This will keep ag on the land, water on the land.”

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Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe