Farmington council votes against proceeding with solar project
Officials cite high costs in comparison to regular power
FARMINGTON — The Farmington City Council unanimously has voted against moving forward with installing a solar array near the Bluffview Power Plant.
“I really want to go on the record and say I’m not against solar,” Councilor Linda Rodgers said during a meeting Tuesday evening. “The thing I can’t wrap my head around is that it really does not make economic sense.”
The councilors said they believe solar will have a place in Farmington’s power generation assets, but they do not think the utility should pay twice the amount for solar power that it pays to purchase other power from the market. The utility currently provides electricity generated by coal, natural gas and hydropower. City Manager Rob Mayes highlighted the hydropower as a renewable resource the city currently offers during the council meeting, which can be viewed online at fmtn.org.
In addition to paying twice as much as the utility would pay for other power sources, the city would have been locked into that rate for 20 years.
When reached Wednesday, Farmington Electric Utility director Hank Adair said the city would have paid $84 for each megawatt hour the 1.1 megawatt solar array produced for 20 years. In comparison, he said the utility can purchase power for $36 a megawatt hour.
Adair said the solar price has increased by 60 percent since October due to factors like changes in the tax law and tariffs.
When reached by phone Wednesday, Councilor Sean Sharer said the council has asked the city staff to look for less-expensive options.
"Solar is the wave of the future," he said.
While he voted against the solar project, Sharer said he has looked at putting solar panels on his house.
Sharer said the city already has an option in place for customers who want renewable energy. The electric utility currently purchases renewable energy for six customers who have chosen to pay a renewable rate. The renewable power purchased is less expensive than the proposed solar project.
Sharer said the original concept for the solar project had been that the customers would subscribe to receive power from the solar array. Sharer said he did not think many residents would be willing to pay 40 to 60 percent more to have solar energy, and the utility could not guarantee customers would receive only solar energy.
"Molecules don't know to go from the solar panel to my house because I pay," he said.
Several people who attended the meeting said the solar array could offer economic development benefits.
Warren Unsicker, the CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, said many companies that manufacture outdoors equipment and products market them as having been made using renewable energy.
He highlighted Osprey Packs Inc., Mountain Hardware and Cliff Bar as examples.
“We want to make sure we have a kind of ready and fertile ground for those types of businesses here,” he said.
He said even large corporations that do not focus on outdoors markets have made commitments to using renewable energy. He highlighted the RE100 initiative — a group of major industries that have committed to using 100 percent renewable energy. He said that initiative includes Starbucks, Budweiser, General Motors, Walmart, eBay and Facebook.
During the meeting, Sharer expressed doubt that development of the solar field alone would be enough to spur economic development.
“If industries were chomping at the bit to move into Farmignton with the only caveat being build a solar power plant, I don’t think a single person in this building would say no,” he said.
He said one of the economic development hurdles the city faces is that Farmington does not have an efficient way to ship products out of the city. Sharer said the city needs infrastructure such as a railroad or interstate.
Councilor Gayla McCulloch said if the city spent half as much as the San Juan Regional Medical Center spent on its solar array, it would be several million dollars.
In 2016, McCulloch voted against permitting the solar development at the hospital. At the time, McCulloch cited zoning as the reason she opposed the array. While she has voted against solar developments in the past, she said there will be a time for the city to invest in solar energy.
“I cannot vote for this tonight, and luckily I won’t get to vote again,” she said.
While the council unanimously voted against the new array, Mayor Tommy Roberts, who votes only in the event of a tie, said he supported moving forward with the solar array despite the high costs. Roberts said he approached the decision from an economic development perspective.
“What I have heard convinces me that this is a tool that we ought to put in our so-called tool box sooner than later,” he said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.