A massive new solar array residing in Pueblo in the U.S. state of Colorado has become a saving grace in the minds of many in the town. For renewable energy advocates, the Bighorn Solar Project is an illustration of how solar power installations can not only create new roles in a community—with the project creating 300 jobs during construction—but also help to retain those that would otherwise be at risk if not for the addition of renewable energy. It’s why whether you’re residing in Colorado or further afield, this is a project worth knowing about in a state that is aspiring to reform its economic identity during the 21st century in a big way.
At a cost of US$285 million, the 300MW Bighorn is expected to come online this month, according to Lightsource bp, its builder, owner, and operator. This array has offered Pueblo—a town of around 110,000—a fresh look at a new future. One where renewable energy can help keep local jobs, and thus residents residing and businesses operating in the town.
It’s held without the addition of this array, EVRAZ, the owners of the Rocky Mountain Steel plant, would have relocated the operation. But now, around 90 percent of the energy needs at the mill will be met by Bighorn. All told, Bighorn shall see 750,000 solar panels in place across 1,800 acres of land.
Although there’s no question that the story of the Bighorn is very newsworthy, it’s really just one part of the changing landscape that is being seen across Colorado, as the state of around 5.7 million begins to shape a new identity for itself in the 2020s that looks to a future where the use of renewables scale up, as the fossil fuel industry declines.
The fact is while ten years ago Delta County had three coal mines, two of them have since closed, with the West Elk Mine left as the last one standing following the closure of the Bowie #2 in 2016. Additionally, while the 2020s started with three coal-fired power plants set to continue to operate past 2030 in the state, greater pressure is being placed upon management each year to speed up the timeline for their closure.
One can expect to find widespread agreement among solar enthusiasts who are also passionate about sustainability (usually those two identifiers will go hand-in-hand but not always) that there must be a drawdown of fossil fuels, and that it should occur rapidly. Yet any speedy transition should of course be accompanied by an uptick in education and economic opportunities surrounding growing green industries. This so as to ensure the economic stability of fossil fuel workers during this transition phase can look to be maintained, as they seek to switch from jobs in the fossil fuel sector to others elsewhere.
The students at Delta High School in Delta County know more than a little about the transition occurring around them. While in generations prior students could look to a life beyond graduation with the knowledge a strong mining industry within the state meant many jobs in the field could be on offer—whether directly in the mining sector or in fields that support it—today students know there’s simply no longer a guarantee of such a dynamic to continue across their adult lives.
Yet under the leadership of Ben Graves at Delta High School, science students have been able to pursue training in solar energy fundamentals. While Mr. Graves’ class has covered material such as how emissions can be reduced, it’s also been hands-on, allowing Delta youth interested in pursuing a career in the electrical trades following high school to gain some practical experience early on.
To many from Colorado who find their optimism interwoven with worry for their state in a post-fossil fuel economy, such efforts as those which have been going on at Delta High School help affirm with the right planning in place now, the future can indeed be bright for Coloradans in years to come.
In the years ahead many communities—both small and large—that have long relied on fossil fuel jobs will need to make a clear-cut transition away from them. It’s fair to say there’s shared anxiety surrounding this across all perspectives. Just as renewable energy enthusiasts are anxious for this transition to occur rapidly, many people who currently hold such jobs—alongside civic authorities who seek to balance the budget in these aforementioned communities—are anxious about the future of their income.
All people of goodwill in this dynamic can recognize the precise nature of this transition is challenging. Just the same, it can certainly be made much easier when new technologies and approaches arise in a community that at the very least spur new economic activity in the renewables sector, and ideally provide the prospect of such new growth outright replacing fossil fuel-based industries, which ultimately sooner rather than later will be sent into history.
The endeavors that’ve been underway in Pueblo and Colorado more widely provide fantastic insights for inspiration in this regard. And accordingly, all with an interest in this space can look forward to seeing how other communities may look to utilize the Coloradan experience as a blueprint for their own efforts to make transitions to cleaner and greener activities.