Most of Wyoming has hundreds of days of sunshine every year. This helps grow our gardens and crops, tan our skin, and enjoy the state’s vast outdoor recreation opportunities.
Why, then, aren’t there more large-scale solar projects generating renewable energy for use within the state and for export to other markets?
Dave Schmid of Rocky Mountain Power said the company has no large solar projects in Wyoming. “Most large solar arrays come in through third-party contracts.” he said. Rocky Mountain Power has a large solar project in southwest Utah and one in Oregon.
But the picture has changed in one respect: The Bureau of Land Management recently approved Wyoming’s first utility-scale solar energy farm. It will be located about 11 miles outside Green River on federal land and some private land. Called Sweetwater Solar, the plan is for it to sell electricity to Rocky Mountain Power under a 20-year agreement.
Company officials expect 150-300 short-term jobs could be generated over the six-month construction period. Tax revenues of more than $400,000 could be generated for Sweetwater County and more than $600,000 for the State of Wyoming.
The BLM analysis of the project, for which a “finding of no significant impact” was made through the environmental review, noted that the solar farm could provide enough electricity to power 17,000 homes. Green River’s large number of sunny days and cool nights make it ideal for a large solar project.
But not everyone is that excited about the idea. Michele Irwin ranches in the area and is an advocate for conservation issues.
“It seems like this was a done deal before the public really considered it,” she said.
She contrasted the solar process with discussions held about wind development or fossil fuel projects.
“I’m afraid there are a lot of folks jumping on the bandwagon that are all just fixated on ‘solar is good and diversifying our energy portfolio ... let’s go with it,’” Irwin said. “We may be a good state for solar, but there’s no other state that has our wildlife migration.”
The Powder River Basin Resource Council apparently doesn’t have a position on utility-scale solar projects.
“Our members support smaller-scale solar generation like that used by businesses, homeowners and ranchers,” organizer Hesid Brandow said.
Large-scale solar projects carry many of the same concerns as other energy developments: long-term impacts on wildlife and habitat. The PRBRC did submit concerns about the Sweetwater project’s wildlife impacts. Some of the stipulations attached to approvals by BLM include no construction and activities between November and April to protect pronghorn antelope wintering in the area, and in order to protect sage grouse, construction and other activities will also be prohibited between March and June.
A large chunk of the project area was deleted to accommodate wildlife migration routes. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department noted the loss of sage grouse habitat was not “minor,” as stated in the BLM’s environmental assessment.
Sweetwater Solar is a subsidiary of Hanwha, the largest international manufacturer of solar modules. Construction is scheduled to begin in July and be completed in February 2020.
Small rooftop and backyard solar installations have benefited over the last several years from sharp declines in the cost of materials. Mark and Stacey Schmid own Range Solar and Wind in Casper. The company sells and installs solar panels and all the associated wiring, switches and accessories.
“We’re looking at an expansion in 2019 because the federal tax credit drops after this year,” Stacey Schmid said. “This is the last year for a 30 percent credit; it drops to 26 percent next year, then 22 percent in 2021, and after that it goes away for residential, and there’s a 10 percent credit for commercial installations unless things change.”
A small residential installation of six panels could cost between $4,000 and $6,000. People who have mountain cabins or properties far from electrical service are frequent customers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also offers a Rural Energy Agriculture Program that offers grants up to 25 percent of the total installation cost. The applicant must show that 50 percent or more of their income is from agriculture sales.
Mark Schmid said Wyoming is not totally on board with solar energy production. He said many people oppose the megasite projects because often the only people who benefit are the project owners and the utility companies.