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Community solar project denied permit

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Heath Lovell, project development director for Pivot Energy, talks Tuesday night at the Roswell-Chaves County Extraterritorial Zoning Commission meeting in the Chaves County Administrative Center about a community solar garden the company wants to build on West Pine Lodge Road. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Company representatives say decision about appeal not made yet

A citizen commission voted against a permit that would have allowed a solar energy developer to install a community solar garden just west of the Roswell city limits if a state regulation group awarded a project to the company in 2022.

Members of the Roswell-Chaves County Extraterritorial Zoning (ETZ) Commission had a slew of questions Tuesday night for the representatives of Chaves Solar 2 LLC, a division of Pivot Energy New Mexico LLC and Pivot Energy Inc. of Denver, Colorado, regarding a type of project that is new to the state and the area, made possible by the Community Solar Act signed into law in April.

The permit and proposed project had resulted in three protest letters to the commission from nearby property owners, as well as comments from three additional property owners who voiced opposition during the Tuesday meeting. Some of the speakers said they were representing other property owners as well.

Most opponents expressed the idea that they did not want a solar project in the rural-suburban district, near their homes or small farms or orchards. Some also said that they had concerns about electromagnetic radiation; toxic materials released if panels break; dust during construction; glare off the panels; humming from the equipment; an increase in ambient air temperatures around the solar panels; disruptions to deer, birds and other wildlife; and property devaluations.

Heath Lovell, project development director for Pivot Energy Inc., and Eli Oppenheimer, project development manager, told the public and commissioners that the project would be a benefit to the area in numerous ways, including providing green energy.

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“I had multiple phone calls with most of the protestors,” said Lovell. “I have also mailed them documents in the mail for the review, hopefully addressing any concerns or questions they had. Those materials (included) a study I submitted into the record.”

He said the study by North Carolina State University reviewed impacts of solar projects. He also said he offered to hold a meeting to discuss concerns with property owners, an offer that was not accepted.

After hearing from the public and the company representatives, Commissioners Mona Kirk, Matthew Bristol and Neil Roe voted yes on granting a special use permit, while Rita Kane-Doerhoefer, Michael Lackey, Larry Connolly and Commission Chair Royce “Pancho” Maples voted no.

“I am reminded of the precedent where we had the solar array out here on Brasher Road and the local community objected to it quite vociferously because it does change the nature of the neighborhood, I guess is what I am saying,” Maples said. “I hear the people who are opposed to it.”

Kirk said that she struggled with her vote because she wanted the landowners to get income from their property, but also had concerns about the opposition of neighboring property owners. She said she had shared their concerns when a solar project had been built near her home on Six-Mile Hill.

“I had the same reservations, too,” she said. “I had my reservations and everything I have heard is what my reservations were. I can tell you that it was not displeasing to the property around or my property. It didn’t … every reservation I had was unfounded.”

Bristol said in making his motion to approve the permit, as well as a minor change to one of the conditions of the permit, that he disagreed with a lot of the concerns voiced.

“There is a whole lot of NIMBY (not in my backyard) going on,” he said, “but it is NIMBY, so it is not really a valid point.”

Lovell and a company vice president said later that the company has not yet made a decision about whether to appeal to the ETZ Authority.

The permit request actually was filed by Jerrod and Melissa Higgins, the owners of about 25 acres of land at West Pine Lodge Road at the intersection of the Roswell Relief Route where the project is planned.

“We are trying something as an investment for our family so we can have another income coming in,” Jerrod Higgins said. “We are just trying to find an investment that is good for us and the community. Solar is great for the community.”

He said he works for Xcel Energy and is familiar with solar projects. He explained that he and his wife had met with Chaves County Planning and Zoning staff and discussed other income-producing projects such as multifamily housing or a recreational vehicle park. He said the other ideas would have required more “brutal” actions regarding the property, including providing some kind of alternative access to the property.

Chaves Solar 2 intended to hold a 25-year lease for the land. It would then install the 5-megawatt solar project if the New Mexico Public Regulations Commission decided to award it a solar project after a competitive process that is expected to begin in April 2022. Lovell has said that, if they had received the special use permit, they would have tried again for PRC approval in future years if they were not awarded a project in 2022.

Lovell and Oppenheimer said the company also would pay for any necessary upgrades to Xcel Energy distribution lines so that the solar project project could tie into the Xcel grid and supply energy to it. The Community Solar Act requires the three public electric utility companies in the state to purchase a certain amount of energy from community solar projects in their areas approved by the PRC.

The Pivot representatives also said that the lease with the Higgins included guarantees about decommissioning the project and returning the land to its original state after the life of the project in about 40 to 50 years. Oppenheimer, however, said in response to a commissioner’s question that he could not state for sure whether the panels would end up in a local landfill after decommissioning.

The solar garden is a middle ground between home or business solar installations and large industrial solar projects developed in direct cooperation with utility companies. Lovell and Oppenheimer said that individual installation projects can take a long time to pay off and also sometimes are not suitable for certain types of properties.

With solar gardens, the developer provides the energy to the utility, but it works with individuals, businesses, school districts and other entities to sign them up as subscribers.

Subscribers receive electric bill credits for their share in the energy generated, which reduces their electric bills. As required by the new state law, about 30% of the energy generated by community solar projects must benefit low-income residents. According to Lovell, the energy generated by the 5-megawatt solar project would be enough to supply electricity to 1,100 homes for a year.

Lovell also said that Pivot contributes money to the communities it serves and typically makes presentations about solar energy to local schools. He said the local project also would increase property taxes paid for the West Pine Lodge Road parcel and help diversify the local economy.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.