BISBEE — Sulfur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative (SSVEC) will be adding another solar plant able to generate 20 mega watts of power, enough for 3,000 to 4,000 homes in the customer service area, after approval by the Cochise County Planning and Zoning Commission granted a special use authorization last Wednesday.
According to county Planner II Robert Kirschner’s report, the new plant will be located on a 160 acre site north of Willcox on Ranch House Road in a rural agricultural area. Solar panels will cover 120 acres of the site which is listed on a University of Arizona solar study map as a good location for a solar farm. The land also lies within a comprehensive plan which encourages the use of solar energy resources.
Kirchner described the area immediately surrounding the solar project as “very rural with a few scattered single family residences, large pivots and cattle grazing. The structures will be only 10 feet in height which will help with the visual aspect to surrounding properties. Setbacks for solar energy power plants are required to be at least twice the minimum required setback or equal the height of the tallest structure.”
“Since the tallest structure is proposed at 10 feet, and the required setback is 20 feet, the applicant will be required a minimum 40 foot setback around the parcel. Staff is recommending a condition that requires the existing native vegetation located within the required setback area surrounding the site remain undisturbed to the greatest extent possible.”
While the Rural Land Use district restricts lot coverage to a maximum of 25 percent, the plan calls for approximately 75 percent of lot coverage which required approval of a modification waiver as well, Kirchner continued. “A modification is warranted due to the type of project being proposed and the large native buffer that will be provided along the perimeter of the site.”
The height of the panels and the impact of 120 acres of them, well beyond the normal limit of coverage, came under discussion as Gregan drilled down on just how tall the panels would be at full tilt.
According to Daniel Wilson, SSVEC director of engineering, they actually would be at 12 feet to 15 feet in height during prime generating time. He also pointed out the power generated would only go to SSVEC customers, not California.
Gregan noted prime time would be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and suggested the impact of the viewshed should be a consideration in the approval of the request.
Kim Bennett, who owns land abutting the proposed solar farm, said he had issues with the proposal first due to flooding, and second, due to an agreement with Arizona Game and Fish which allowed him to hunt birds on a “historic shooting area” of his land. He suggested the farm would impact his land and he would lose the ability to hunt on the preserve and even asked SSVEC to buy him out.
Wilson talked with Bennet previously and explained he did not think the farm would “negatively impact his land anymore” than the past. Water flow studies would be completed and a drainage plan developed to lessen erosion and scouring.
Gregan asked why SSVEC did not choose a better location nearer to the existing coal plant off Highway 191 southwest of Willcox.
Wilson explained the spread of smaller plants away from each other was necessary due to cloud cover. When one spot was shaded, another would be in sunlight.
Another reason for the Ranch House Road location was it was closer to existing transmission lines, said Wilson.
At a cost of nearly half a million dollars a mile to build a transmission line, the preferred site would require about one mile of line to be installed.
Commissioners Nathan Watkins, Patrick Greene, Gary Brauchla, Nancy Welch, David Koch and Jim Martzke approved the measure with Gregan in opposition.
Commissioner Kim DePew abstained from the vote as her husband is an SSVEC employee.