Distant Flare

Some residents are gearing up to push back on a solar project yet to be approved by county officials

Dr. Selma Eikelenboom-Schieveld isn’t backing down.

The south Santa Fe County resident and her husband have lived in the San Marcos housing development for about two years and are now worried about a new neighbor that seems set on moving in nearby: a giant energy company’s proposed solar project.

“I just want to inform people because they have long arms,” Eikelenboom-Schieveld says. “I’m a doctor, I am in constant fight with big pharma, with pharmaceutical companies. Now I’m in a fight with big electric.”

Big electric in this case is AES, the global company that plans to install 800 acres worth of solar panels on a plot of land that’s an easy walk from Eikelenboom-Schieveld’s home. Armed with a self-researched fact sheet and a digital slide show presentation, Eikelenboom-Schieveld is sharing her concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of a solar project of this magnitude, despite a long path ahead for AES to get it off the ground.

The company’s proposal to install an array of solar panels on privately-owned property owned by Rancho Viejo Limited Partnership between Highway 14 and Eldorado has been in the works for months. But Santa Fe County spokeswoman Sara Smith tells SFR in an email the company has not submitted an application to the county.

“Once AES submits their application to the county, the [county Sustainable Land Development Technical Advisory Committee] hearing officer will review the application and the Planning Commission will review the application as well,” Smith writes. “If the application is denied, it will go before the Board of County Commissioners.”

The lengthy planning process hasn’t stopped Eikelenboom-Schieveld—who says she’s not against solar projects, but wants to see it in a less inhabited area—from spreading the word about potential dangers. The proposed behemoth might block her view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but Eikelenboom-Schieveld says she’s most concerned about storage-container-sized batteries or solar panels themselves catching fire and subsequently releasing toxic chemicals into the air or leaching into groundwater.

She shared her presentation Monday night during a virtual community meeting she organized, where many, but not all, attendees shared her concerns.

Andrew Rodney, who lives in a “net zero house” he built in Eldorado in 2012 just east of the Rancho Viejo site, tells SFR he left the virtual meeting wanting. He was one of a handful of attendees who criticized the meeting structure and left early.

“What I basically heard for 40 minutes was a hit job without any substantial data, science or facts,” Rodney says. “So that’s really why I was fairly disappointed.”

Rodney concedes that he is not fully informed about the project, but that ultimately he thinks a solar project of this size could bring more benefits than harms.

“Everything in life carries risks, whether it’s creating a solar farm, or driving into town, or getting on an airplane or gathering with a bunch of people without a mask, I mean, everything has a risk-to-benefit factor,” he says.

Jonathan Moore, the AES development manager for the Rancho Viejo project, tells SFR in a written statement that AES energy storage batteries are the same type used in “hundreds of millions of cars, planes, computers and other personal devices each year,” and that safety is the company’s “highest priority.”

“The contained battery systems for the Rancho Viejo project will achieve all required certifications prior to site commercial operation, and AES is working with appropriate third parties to provide safety training for fire and emergency response departments in the vicinity of the project,” Moore writes.

He goes on to say Rancho Viejo was chosen to house the project in order to effectively send stored power to the grid.

“The private land on which the project will be located was selected due to its attributes and proximity to nearby transmission lines that will allow the project to efficiently produce safe and reliable renewable energy for PNM customers,” Moore writes.

Eikelenboom-Schieveld showed SFR around her property earlier this week to demonstrate just how close the Rancho Viejo project would be to her house. According to documents on the project’s website, panels and batteries would be no closer than 1,000 feet to any nearby property. With her house still clearly in view, Eikelenboom-Schieveld points to a cactus near her fence line, which she estimates is about 1,000 feet from her property. She hasn’t been able to find another example of a comparably-sized solar project so close to a residential area.

“AES paints a really optimistic picture and I think people have a right to know what the real facts are,” Eikelenboom-Schieveld says. “That’s why I’m making such a big deal out of this because the whole thing is basically an experiment.”

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