SIERRA VISTA — The county Planning and Zoning Commission approved two solar farms, postponed one and denied one during the Dec. 9 meeting.
The two special-use authorizations requested by Clenera Solar North and South for the 560-acre and 540-acre solar farm on a 10,870-acre parcel on the Babocomari Ranch southwest of the junction of State Routes 90 and 82 were approved by Commissioners Patrick Greene, Gary Brauchla, Jim Martzke and Kim DePew in a 4-3 vote. Commissioners Wayne Grogan, Gerry Gonzales and Nancy Welch voted against it. David Koch recused himself from the discussion. Nathan Watkins was absent.
The north the south projects are each planed as an 80mw solar photovoltaic utility scale solar power generation facility with the possibility of an energy storage system, said Robert Kirschmann, planner II. The two facilities will power 56,000 homes. The solar panels will be 15 feet high, but no visual impact is expected due to the remoteness of the area and existing vegetation. A new above-ground utility line will be constructed between the two facilities. It will tie into the existing Tucson Electric Power transmission line that runs from Fort Huachuca to the Tucson area.
Dustin Thompson, with Clenera, said there would be minimal impact to the environment and community, though during the construction phase there could be dust and some increased truck traffic. Very little concrete will be used and when construction is completed, the acreage would be reseeded. The fencing around the plant will allow small wildlife to still use the land. The solar farms will be about 1.5 miles from the nearest residence.
Over the life of the plants, about 35 years, he estimated close to $5 million would go to the county and education in property taxes. About 350 jobs will be created during construction and some positions could be filled by local workers, including maintenance positions. The expected date for beginning power generation is 2022.
Thompson also pointed out the cost of solar and wind components have decreased and is cheaper than producing electricity through fossil fuels.
Kirschmann said the department sent out about 900 letters to surrounding property owners, the Federal Aviation Administration, airports in Sierra Vista and Benson and Fort Huachuca. Only five letters of support and five letters in opposition were returned from the public.
Being near Fort Huachuca, Heidi Malarchik, Deputy Garrison Commander, told the commissioners the fort’s concerns lie with country of origin purchases of materials and pointed out Tucson Electric has “lessons learned on source materials when they installed an array system on Fort Huachuca in 2015.”
She continued, “We have concerns, but we’re not directly opposing this request. I think we can resolve any problems.”
She asked Clenera to request the Federal Aviation Administration to perform an aeronautical study to determine if the solar farms will impact the fort and airfield operations. Thompson agreed it would be done.
Charles McChesney, owner of the Babocomari Ranch, said the family has owned the land for 100 years and has been actively protecting it with conservation easements, erosion control measures and seeding with native grasses. He believed the solar farms would be a productive use of the land.
DePew voiced concern over selling power to Tucson and not keeping it in the county.
Gregan said he did not feel “solar is economical.”
Gonzales was concerned for wildlife.
A request for a special-use authorization and rezoning for a small scale solar farm covering up to 140 acres on a 232-acre parcel on Charleston Road was tabled in a 6-1 vote so the applicant Greenstone Land Holding LLC could complete an assessment of possible impact on Fort Huachuca. DePew was the sole vote in opposition. The request will be heard again at the Jan. 13 meeting.
Requests for a special-use authorization and rezoning for a small scale solar farm on Fort Grant Road by Greenstone were denied by the commission in a 7-1 vote with Greene being the only commissioner to vote in favor.
The plan was to construct the solar farm on a 140.95-acre parcel with the panels taking up 99 percent of the property with reduced setbacks.
Greenstone had no contract to sell the power to Sulfur Springs Valley Electrical Cooperative, though Derrick Fromm, speaking on behalf of Greenstone, said he was in talks with the company. SSVEC had suggested the site of the former cotton farm.
DePew said she did not want “to see Cochise County be the only place to say yes to these requests.” Gregan agreed.
The rezoning request will go to the Board of Supervisors for a hearing.