7,000 acre solar proposal has some Dammeron Valley residents saying ‘Not here’

Dammeron Valley, Utah, May 21, 2016 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

ST. GEORGEWhen flyers were delivered to many Dammeron Valley homes notifying residents of a proposed solar plant near the community, it was the first they had heard about development plans for approximately 7,000 acres of wilderness and recreation land east of the community.

The Red Butte Solar Project, proposed by renewable power company BrightNight, was announced to Dammeron Valley residents near the beginning of 2022. Since then, the community has been abuzz with conversation about the pros and cons of the proposal.

“It seemed like a big surprise, from what I heard online and on Facebook groups and from next door neighbors,” said Lori Benson, a Dammeron Valley homeowner. “There are still residents that aren’t sure what’s going, so if we can have some kind of a community meeting we could voice all of these questions that we have.”

According to BrightNight, the actual footprint of the solar installation would occupy less than 2,200 acres of the 7,000 outlined for study. The study area encompasses a broad swath of land northeast of State Route 18, in the foothills of Pine Valley Mountain.

The plant would have an estimated capacity of 300 megawatts, said Maribeth Sawchuk, vice president of communications for BrightNight. Under ideal conditions, the project could generate enough power annually to sustain about 73,000 homes, according to the average use estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

File photo for illustrative purposes: an earlier solar project planned and installed by Dammeron Valley Water Works now sits within the study area outlined by BrightNight, Dammeron Valley, Utah, Aug. 10, 2020 | Photo by Alexa Morgan, St. George News

“I’m all for renewable energy, so I’m not against what they’re doing –  just where it is,” Benson said. “In community forums with residents one of the main points that come up is the impact to wildlife, particularly deer migration. There’s concerns about how this project would impact the water supply, and possible negative impacts from the equipment itself or associated chemicals.”

Data made available through the Utah Wildlife Migration Initiative shows that almost the entire area slated for study lies within a highly-trafficked migration corridor.

However, Sawchuk said she’s confident that migration patterns and native wildlife can be preserved through careful planning, particularly with the information that will be available under the process outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“A renewable energy project is really at its core about being beneficial to the environment,” she said. “We go to great lengths to ensure that the projects are installed in a way that can live in harmony with native flora and fauna, whether it’s creating a layout that allows animals to pass through in a natural way or installing a project inspired by agri-voltaics (combining solar power and agriculture).”

A heat map showing the migration corridors favored by Utah wildlife. Darker colors indicate more heavily traveled areas, with an overlaying graphic showing the approximate location of the proposed solar field | Image courtesy of the Utah Wildlife Migration Initiative, St. George News

The land identified for study is currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM stated that the proposal would have to meet all the environmental standards for approval, but that more information wouldn’t be available until a NEPA study and other evaluations were complete.

Possible disruptions to recreation and scenery were also raised by other Dammeron Valley residents, summarized in the statement made by Lori Benson’s husband, Greg.

“We’re not just losing the 2,200 acres that they’re going to build their ugly thing on,” he said. “We’re also losing the other 5,000 acres that people use for hunting, RV riding, equestrian and all the other recreation activities that people move out to Dammeron Valley for. There’s no longer public access if they have a lease on all 7,000 acres.”

After receiving an unusually high number of complaints, Sawchuk affirmed that the power development company plans to take public comment and concerns into account. 

“We’re looking at a lot of locations where it makes sense to bring a renewable power project like this, so the hyper-local details are things like space, land availability and having customers who would want to buy the energy,” Sawchuk said. “Then also having it be feasible to connect the project – it’s a lot harder than people think.”

A view of the typical landscape contained within the Red Butte study area, with the community of Dammeron Valley visible in the distance on the right, Washington County, Utah, March 16, 2022 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

The flyers distributed in Dammeron Valley note the existing power lines that already cross the study area, and an accompanying map shows where the project could connect to high power lines that serve Cedar City, Las Vegas and more. 

BrightNight has not yet determined who will purchase the power generated, but Sawchuk said that, regardless of the power’s destination, the project could benefit local communities through tax revenue and job creation.

Still, residents like Lori and Greg Benson remain skeptical of BrightNight’s promises and hope to see more effort to engage the community and address individual concerns. 

In fact, among similar projects across 14 U.S. states, this is the earliest BrightNight has heard back from community members en masse, Sawchuk said.

“This is valuable land to folks and it serves a valuable purpose, but I would say there’s room for everyone,” she said. “ We have really creative ways to ensure that the land stays valuable for everyone, and there’s also ways that we can work with the BLM to optimize the land that’s remaining just to make what is there even better and more usable.”

BrightNight is a Florida-based energy company founded in 2019. Currently, the company has several large-scale power projects underway or in development in the U.S., Asia and Australia. To share concerns or ask questions about the Red Butte Solar Project, BrightNight says that residents can contact them via email or by calling 703-626-1119.

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