Council Votes Unanimously to End Discussions on Airport Solar Project

Dec 6, 2023 | Featured, Regional News

Torrington, WY December 6th, 2023 —

The Torrington City Council met this past Tuesday for a regular council meeting. Again, the council continued discussions on the solar energy generation project with Sandhills Energy.

Sandhills Energy

Sandhills Energy is a company from Omaha, NE that constructs and maintains renewable energy facilities across the nation.The company plans on leasing property from the City of Torrington Airport, building and maintaining a solar energy generation facility at that property, and then selling the power generated from this facility to the Municipal Energy Association of Nebraska (MEAN), who then provides electricity to Torrington.

The lease could last as long as 35 years, and would bring in approximately $11,800 in lease revenue to the City, along with some other economic benefits. 

Opinions from City Officials and Sandhills Energy

During discussions at this week’s council meeting, a handful of City employees and board members spoke about the project and voiced their opinions.

John Ellis, Chairman of the City Airport Board, voiced his concerns about safety.

“We voted unanimously to not have it on the airport because there are so many unknowns. There’s a number of issues that we don’t know about – the affect that this may have on the airport – as far as radio frequencies, glare from the solar panels…I’m not going to spend much time talking about it because the board voted unanimously not to put it up there because we have very serious concerns that it may affect the airport.”

Mike Richey, Airport Manager, alluded to the fact that a solar project at the airport could impede future expansion projects.

“There are some huge possibilities for expanding the airport. I’ve had people fly through on jets and they’re talking about things that they might like to do here. I’ve talked with people down at Centennial Airport. They have said that they’re getting tired of the Denver area, they’re getting closed in – so there’s great potential here to do something that’s pretty significant. The positioning of solar panels can get to be very detrimental.”

Mr. Richey also mentioned an aviation study in India as a cause for safety concern.

“The economy in India is booming – they’re building airports right and left. They actually have a mandate that everything needs to be green and it has to be solar. Now, they’re coming out with all kinds of studies where pilots have been blinded – there’s actually been retinal damage because of the positioning of the solar panels. I just don’t see it as being safe.”

Dana Youtz, Electrical Supervisor, said that he has not been in favor of this project to begin with. He pointed out that Sandhills Energy has yet to complete a project of this magnitude.

“That is my biggest concern – that we don’t have a baseline to go off of. I have not really been in favor of this project from the get-go. I would rather we have somebody we could talk to that they have an installation with – for a year – that we could say: Have you experienced issues? Have you had problems? But we don’t have that. So, my recommendation would be that we need to talk to someone that’s been on this – where they’ve built something. I don’t want to be the guinea pig for it.”

Raki Giannakouros, Executive Vice President of Sandhills Energy, offered his rebuttal on safety concerns.

“On the safety side of it – that’s the side of it that we can pin down – we can objectively verify glare studies. There’s multiple different software out there and the FAA has really good guidance on this. That part of it is pretty easy to address. In terms of interfering with frequencies, that’s also something that we can address and we’d be happy to talk to the board about that.”

Brian Boerner, Director of Operations with Sandhills Energy, talked about the tax benefit the project would bring, and also mentioned concerns with hail in the area.

“The actual lease revenue is one thing – but I would also mention that we expect to bring in around $60,000 per year in property taxes – so that is also something to consider in terms of what this is bringing to Torrington. Finally, I know there’s always some concern about hail in the area, especially with the recent hail storm in Scottsbluff, NE. We’ll take an insurance policy out, as the operator in Scottsbluff did. That solar project made a full claim that has worked out for them, and the project will be online by the beginning of next year. It was down for about 6 months. That’s kind of how we would handle it.”

The Vote

After over an hour of discussions, the council voted unanimously to cease discussions and negotiations with Sandhills Energy, effectively ending plans for the airport solar energy generation facility.