Community Solar Project estimated to start construction in 2015 and become operation in 2016.

Pueblo’s new sunrise in solar

Boulder-based Community Energy Solar’s plan to construct the largest solar array east of the Rocky Mountains is big news, but the economic impact may be less substantial than expected for such a large project.

Xcel Energy Inc. chose Community Energy Solar to build the $200 million solar farm to supply enough energy for 31,000 of its customers in Denver.

The 450,000 small solar panels that will take up 900 acres of privately owned land southeast of Pueblo would create six long-term jobs and a few-hundred construction jobs for 12-15 months starting in summer 2016, according to Pueblo County Economic Development Director Chris Markuson.

Nearly $20 million would be infused into the economy during the construction period.  After the array is built, the solar array will employ six full-time employees to operate and maintain the solar panels.

Markuson said revenue would still infuse the economy through a continuous flow of tax dollars from the project paid to Pueblo County. That money would directly affect thousands of other salaries.

“This means money for our schools, government, libraries and other organizations who employ thousands of our citizens,” he said.

Marukson said the $200 million project will come at no expense to taxpayers in Pueblo. Xcel, which was forgiven $33 million in property taxes by the city since 2004, is responsible for purchasing the project.

Though the half-cent sales tax, often associated with economic growth in Pueblo, played no part in bringing the project to Southern Colorado, Markuson said the project still plays an important role in improving the economy.

“One of my primary goals as the director of economic development for Pueblo County is to help re-focus our efforts to include growing the overall wealth of our community,” he said.

He compares Pueblo’s economy to a leaky bucket. The water represents revenue and the holes act as escaping money, citizens spending money elsewhere.

The more water there is in the bucket, the better the economy is doing. Getting water in the bucket can happen through the primary industry, businesses that create jobs but the product is sold outside of the geopolitical area, or through the retail industry, which “recirculates the water (revenue) in the community,” Markuson said.

But really, both are needed for a healthy economy, he added. “A healthy retail sector depends upon revenue generation from primary industry.”

Plugging the holes in the bucket, encouraging citizens to shop local, can keep money in the economy. Adding water also increases development.

“The Community Energy solar project is one example of how we can bring additional revenue to Pueblo, helping to raise the water level in the bucket (increase the community’s overall wealth),” he said.

Community Energy Solar has signed a 25-year contract with Xcel, after that the contract can be renegotiated, but Jack Rink, CEO of Pueblo Economic Development Corporation said this could be the beginning of a whole new sector in Pueblo.

“We have spoken with a number of alternative energy companies but this is the first to actually announce their plans. We’ve worked with solar, photovoltaic and thermal, wind, and biofuel interests,” Rink said.

PEDCO works most often with the half-cent sales tax, which means primary jobs. Currently, there is a cluster of manufacturing jobs in Pueblo. Rink says this is because the environment works for them, and because it works, similar companies move to Pueblo.

The solar array could prove to other alternative energy companies that Pueblo works.

Community Solar Energy didn’t benefit from the half-cent sales tax due to their location being just outside of Pueblo. It was also murky whether or not they would have qualified as producing primary jobs. Rink still believes it’s a good starting place to attract other companies and projects similar to the solar farm.

“One of the important assets Pueblo has that makes us attractive for alternative energy is access to the power transmission lines that serve the Excel (coal) and Black Hills (natural gas) power plants,” Rink said.

Pueblo is the ideal spot for Community Energy Solar to build because substations and transmission lines are easily accessible.

“The construction cost of high-capacity power lines is one of the obstacles for wind or solar power plants in other areas,” Rink added

In terms of jobs, there aren’t a lot that exist in producing alternative energy, but there are a good deal of them in manufacturing parts and materials used in alternative energy, according to Rink.

Vestas is a good example of this, he said. The National Resources Defense Council has found that the average wind farm creates 432 jobs in manufacturing, but only 27 operational jobs. The Vestas plant in Pueblo employs more than 600.

The project is a good place for Pueblo to diversify its economy, Rink said. Both retail and primary industries compliment each other.

(Solar panel image Ruta N Medellín | flickr

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