By Clay Thorp, Craig Daily Press

Moffat County Commissioners on Tuesday approved an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Craig to begin the process of building a small solar array to help offset the anticipated loss of coal in the Yampa Valley.

City Manager Peter Brixius has been spearheading the initiative along with other city staff to try and bring a five mega-watt solar farm somewhere near Craig.

A feasibility study will come first for the project, according to the IGA, seeking to “study within the regional solar utility project area in order to generate revenues, offset power consumption and/or provide for electric supply resiliency for the city and each of the partners, and ultimately to offset the economic effects of imminent closure of coal-based industry in the Yampa Valley. The study will be mostly funded by a Department of Local Affairs grant the city applied for and recently received.

“We applied for a grant and have been awarded a $200,000 DOLA grant, which is a matched grant,” Brixius said to commissioners Tuesday.

“We’ve been gathering information from several solar companies and consultants for several months now,” Brixius told commissioners. “…They are very positive about this whole project. We feel very good about it.”

Commissioner Don Cook asked Brixius if their plan to build a smaller five mega-watt array could become larger than five megawatts.

“So, it can go up, but it shouldn’t go down?” Cook asked.

“I don’t think that’ll be possible,” was Brixius’ answer. “Because that’s a lot. Part of the feasibility we’ll discuss, along with the different components, the cost of the field, the geotechnical examination of the site, the selection of the site, the preliminary engineering, will be a factor and something that will have to be completed at the start of the process. The radiance factor is something we’ll need to consider in this area. How do we compare with someplace like Pueblo? The radiance here might not be that great.

“But with the new technology of these panels, they accept reflectivity off the snow on one side and also take direct sunlight on the other side, which might compensate for that radiance factor.”

Brixius said any return on investment will take some two decades.

“We’ll be looking at an ROI somewhere around the 25-year period,” Brixius said.

Jeff Comstock, Moffat County’s natural resource manager, said they are acting now due to the decline of coal.

“The whole reason we started partnering and looking into this is we know what’s happening with coal and the power plants and things in this valley,” Comstock said. “We know we can’t literally offset that impact dollar for dollar. We also know politically and legally and through the decisions of the power companies out there, they’re moving to renewables. So, we want to jump ahead of a decision being made by Tri-State or Excel who put a solar farm or a wind somewhere. We want that to be here rather than over in Pueblo. We want that assessed value. We want that tax base. So, this is an effort to try and mitigate some of that and make sure we end up with something rather than on the Front Range.”

Comstock said negotiations with large energy companies to build more renewables are ongoing.

“We’ve been able to have discussions so far with Excel and Tri-State,” Comstock said. “We actually are scheduling one with Pacificorp.”

Commissioner Ray Beck highlighted commissioners are still trying to support the coal industry in every way they can.

“This is in no way taking our support away from coal,” Beck said. “We still support coal. But the fact the governor’s mission is to keep coal in the ground, and eventually transition away from that, we’ve got to do something to the best of our ability for our community. I want to thank the city for taking the lead on this.”

Beck pointed out the city was essentially able to recapture severance taxes from oil and gas that were reapportioned at the legislature in Denver. Beck also wanted to make sure the project will eventually make money.

“The other reason we’re doing this is the governor took some of our severance tax dollars for impacted communities from oil and gas and shifted that $10 million to another DOLA account and the city was able to apply for that money,” Beck said. “So, in reality, those severance tax dollars do belong to counties like Moffat. So, we need to capitalize on that and get back some of those severance tax dollars into our community through this project.

“At the end of the day, if this all comes to open, it could be a revenue source. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Brixius replied.

Solar consultants consider the project important, despite its smaller size in comparison with some solar farms across the country.

“Because of the high-profile nature of this project, they want to be part of it and I think they’ll get out there and work hard for us,” Brixius said of the companies and consultants he’s working with.

Commissioners approved the IGA unanimously. The city of Craig was likely to approve of its portion of the IGA late Tuesday night, past press time.