More than half of the 30 participants attending Wednesday’s virtual-only information session regarding a proposed solar energy project on Bureau of Land Management land were affiliated with the presenting agencies, the city of Safford or Graham County.
Of the remainder, just two people commented on the project presented by IP (Intersect Power) Land Holdings LLC, whose parent company is located in Delaware, to construct, operate and maintain a 1,000-megawatt solar generation facility that could total approximately 10,355 acres within Safford Field Office federal lands and located approximately 20 miles southeast of Safford in the San Simon Valley.
Derek Eysenbach, BLM project manager for the Arizona state office took the lead during the Zoom meeting centered on the solar energy project, as IP seeks a minimum 35-year right-of-way grant with an option to extend to 50 years.
According to Eysenbach, Arizona BLM’s three designated Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) are already under lease. (Further conversation with Eysenbach confirmed that a competitive live auction occurred Dec. 8, 2021, to find developers for SEZ in Gillespie, Brenda and Agua Caliente.)
“Hopper is proposed in variance land,” he said, explaining that the area in question, none of which is developed for recreational purposes, may be found suitable for a SEZ with appropriate research and a go-ahead from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
But right now, he reminded folks, “we’re at a really low stage of development.”
Informed by research compiled from Phoenix-based SWCA Environmental Consultants and public comment, if the variance moves forward, the next process will be a NEPA review, Eysenbach said.
Camille Wasinger, principal of environmental and permitting at Intersect Power, talked meeting goers through slides giving more details on site design and planning. She stated that community input was “really helpful to us and the BLM,” as she flipped through images.
“We will file on a very large piece of land,” she said, because the final project is most often whittled down substantially. She further noted that there are multiple ephemeral washes which discourage development in those areas.
She said the location for the proposed project is ideal from the company’s perspective because it is located next to two “very large” existing transmission lines. IP could then tap into existing resources, she added.
Wasinger estimated creation of the solar field would require around 300 workers, with a permanent staff of 20 after the station is complete, sourcing first from the community, she said. IP estimates included the use of 1650 acre-feet of water for dust suppression during construction, with an annual use afterward of 70 acre-feet per year to maintain water at the permanent facilities and to wash solar panels.
Janet Guinn, SWCA’s project manager, said the project crosses two BLM grazing allotments. The only development within the roughly 10,000-acre zone is water and corral infrastructure.
Present in the study area was the Chihuahua scurfpea, considered a BLM special species. (The Courier reported in 2015 that the Chihuahua scurfpea was a plant once thought to be extinct. At the time, BLM intern Hailey Buell said the plant was incredibly rare, found in just three sites in Arizona. She and her BLM colleagues were the only people in the world working with the plant.)
Sixteen species of plants protected under Arizona Native Plant Law were observed, mostly cacti, Guinn said.
Following Guinn, the meeting was opened to comments. A man who went only by Nate asked about road maintenance, which Wasinger confirmed would be up to Intersect.
Graham County Chamber of Commerce President Vance Bryce asked if any economic impact studies were completed. Marisa Mitchell, head of environmental and permitting for Intersect, replied that the company has worked up a limited economic impact analysis, and said that was something the company could provide. Eysenbach piggybacked the statement, stating an economic impact analysis is part of most NEPA processes.
Paul David, Graham County Board of Supervisors chair, said he’d seen more than a few proposals during his time with the county, and said that to him, Intersect seems the most promising.
When he asked if the company had a contract to sell the energy generated by the solar project, Wasinger stated that they have bid the contract into a proposal, but have not yet secured a contract. She stated Intersect is aware they need the revenue from a long term rate contract in order to proceed with the Hopper project.
David seemed optimistic. “We’re bullish for FMI, and we’re going to be bullish for Intersect,” he said.
Mitchell fielded a question regarding the size of the solar panels. They will be 12 feet by 9 feet and mounted on pedestals about 6 feet tall. Because the panels trace the sun, the height will vary somewhat as the panels pivot, she added.
Local rancher Nic Brawley spoke up, mentioning that his family leases the Tanque allotment, which runs through the proposed project sight. Eysenbach said that Brawley’s family and fellow ranchers have offered some alternative options, but did not specify what the options were.
“We’ve had some initial conversations with Intersect Power,” he said.
As the meeting wound down, Scott Cooke, field office manager for the Safford BLM office assured attendees, “All those things are very important. We take your suggestions very seriously. We have a good working relationship with Intersect Power.”
There is just under one month remaining to submit public comments via mail or email, he said. All comments must be received by the close of business on Sept. 17. After that, information will be complied, comments read and third-party studies analyzed. Only then does the solar project have the potential to proceed from the variance stage, officials noted.
The meeting, which was expected in the initial notice to run about 90 minutes, closed at 6:09 p.m., just over an hour after it began.
Contact Laura Jean Schneider at LauraJean@eacourier.com