Burning question: What’s the right place for a solar farm?

By Michael Benanav                                                                                                                         March 13, 2024

Fire hazards have Eldorado residents dead set against a solar project, underscoring a national quandary: Some renewables come with risks.

When Eldorado resident Randy Coleman met with representatives from Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office a couple of weeks ago, he received a warning. “They told me I might get called a NIMBY for being against a solar project,” he said, using the acronym for Not in My Back Yard — a derogatory term for people who don’t want progressive projects like low-income housing or wind farms located near their homes or spoiling their views. “But it’s not about that,” Coleman said. As he and others see it, the project proposed for their backyard is a genuine safety hazard.

A global energy company, AES Corp., is seeking a permit from Santa Fe County to build the Rancho Viejo Solar Project, a utility-scale solar farm with a battery energy storage system just south of Santa Fe city limits. The facility’s 200,000 solar panels would sit on about 680 acres of privately owned vacant land off of Highway 14 — roughly three miles south of Rancho Viejo, two miles west of Eldorado and 1,000 feet from Rancho San Marcos, a gated subdivision of some 90 homes.

The proposal has split nearby residents. Some see it as an important step in moving New Mexico away from climate-warming fossil fuels. But others fiercely oppose it, believing it’s a disaster waiting to happen. So deep are the concerns that neighbors have launched a grassroots group, Clean Energy Coalition for Santa Fe County, to defeat the project. They worry that it’s an untenable fire hazard, they question why AES and Santa Fe County have withheld information from the public, and they note that AES facilities around the country have contaminated the environment and left neighbors at risk.

“It’s just the wrong place for a project like this,” Coleman said.

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