Ready, Set, Solar

Company lays out plans for commercial energy project in Santa Fe

Editor’s Note: Global energy company AES has updated the map showing the location of its proposed solar project in Santa Fe County since submitted the above version to county officials last month. The new map can be found here.

A global energy company has taken its first official steps to launch a large commercial solar panel project in Santa Fe County. The company, AES, submitted an application with the county last month, detailing its plans to finish an 800-acre solar project by 2026.

Until now, the details for the planned system on privately-owned land—sandwiched between Eldorado and the San Marcos neighborhood—were limited to the company’s website.

The AES application includes boilerplate documents, such as a warranty deed and letter of consent, but also environmental impact and visual assessment reports that outline how wildlife might be displaced. The documents downplay how much landscape the planned project will block, while addressing long-running concerns neighboring residents have raised about fire suppression.

The county’s Growth Management Department and a land use administrator have reviewed and accepted the application, county Operations Manager Sara Smith tells SFR. The next step, she says, is a review by a county Sustainable Land Development Code hearing officer before consideration by the county Planning Commission, all of which could take at least a couple months.

“Potentially, it could go to the hearing officer in March and the Planning Commission in April,” Smith says.

The code includes a goal to “support the development and use of sustainable, renewable energy production and distribution infrastructure and reduce dependence on non-renewable energy use,” and a policy to “recruit and incentivize renewable energy-related businesses.”

Specifics included in the company’s application still haven’t eased the minds of some who live nearby.

Selma Eikelenboom-Schieveld, who lives in Rancho San Marcos, sent the county a letter just after AES submitted its application with a long list of concerns and counters to assurances from AES.

“The analysis from the Visual Assessment Report and Environmental Impact Report clearly indicate that the quality of our environment will be severely affected,” Eikelenboom-Schieveld wrote. “This project will greatly diminish our joy in living here, it will certainly reduce the value of our properties, and endanger the health and wellbeing of both residents and wildlife.”

A major source of consternation for residents is the potential fire risk associated with the giant batteries needed to store the collected energy. According to the conditional-use permit report AES submitted, battery storage, which the company says would fill up to 4 acres of land, will be equipped for fire suppression.

“If a battery fire is initiated, the enclosures planned for this site would release fire suppressant in large concentrations directly into the initiating cell, removing heat and preventing thermal runaway throughout the enclosure,” the report reads.

The battery energy storage system, according to AES, will include batteries, power converters, fiber optic lines and heating and cooling systems, all of which the company admits would create at least some noise. But the company says anything making more than a slight hum would be situated far enough from residential areas to mitigate auditory disturbances.

Opponents of the solar project have also pointed to the wildlife that depend on the privately-owned land. An environmental impact report from AES acknowledges the flora and fauna that have made or could make homes on the land, and lays out plans to limit harm.

“Impacts to wildlife species will be minimized through the implementation of protection measures such as allowing wildlife to leave the work area, checking trenches or excavation for wildlife, complying with speed limits, and following a worker environmental awareness training,” the impact report reads. “Impacts to wildlife from decommissioning activities will be similar to impacts from construction.”

The impact report defends wildlife displacement by noting burrowing owls and prairie dogs could find new homes nearby.

The company also submitted a summary of community meetings AES held before submitting its application that addresses a long list of objections from neighbors, such as worries about blocked views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. AES in its application packet contends views will only be minimally obstructed because the solar panels would be set back far enough from existing homes and the Turquoise Trail to still see the mountain range.

AES maintains the plot of land is the most suitable spot for the massive project, notably because it’s privately owned and close enough to run transmission lines to Public Service Company of New Mexico’s infrastructure.

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