Massive solar project proposed on public land in Beaver County

Proposed by South Korean energy giant Hanwha, Star Range would cover up to 4,300 acres near Milford

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clover Creek Solar in Mona on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. Solar projects proposed on public land in Beaver County would dwarf this one in Juab County. The Bureau of Land Management is soliciting comments for the 600-megawatt Star Range project on 4,300 acres outside Milford.

A South Korean energy firm is proposing a massive solar development in Utah’s Beaver County, where it hopes to build and operate a sprawling complex of photovoltaic panels across nearly 4,300 acres.

With a generating capacity of 600 megawatts, the Star Range project would be among the first utility-scale projects built on public land in Utah, which will likely result in pushback from the ranching community that relies on such land to graze livestock.

While Utah has experienced a solar boom on private and state land in the sun-drenched western half of the state, not much has been developed on land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Now the California-based 174 Power Global LLC is hoping to plug into Utah’s vast reaches of public land to site what could become the state’s largest solar farm.

Located 9 miles southwest of Milford, the project is outside the BLM’s designated “solar enterprise zones,” or SEZs, areas that it has concluded are best suited for large utility-scale arrays of photovoltaic panels. As a result, Star Range must undergo an environmental analysis to ensure it qualifies for a variance before the BLM could give it the green light.

The proposal caught one nearby property owner and longtime county commissioner by surprise.

Milford rancher Mark Whitney said he opposes solar projects on public land because they take land out of agricultural production without generating much revenue for local government.

“America is about first in time, first in right. So when you start doing this, you’re taking away the historical grazing values of our ancestors and our heritage and our customs and culture,” said Whitney, who recently left the Beaver County Commission. “You put in these projects like this, there is virtually no monetary value to your citizens, the students, the schools. The only thing we get is what is called ‘payment in lieu taxes,’ [or PILT] which we call ‘payments in lieu of trillions.’”

During his 24 years as an elected leader, the Milford area has become one the West’s biggest hubs for renewable energy, with major wind and geothermal. Unlike fossil fuels, renewable sources don’t use much water or release harmful emissions to generate electricity.

The trouble with solar, from Whitney’s perspective, is that it would displace livestock grazing which forms the economic backbone of rural places like Beaver County. Whitney led the county’s effort to pass an ordinance calling for the preservation of public land grazing, measured in “animal unit months,” or AUMs.

“We put in there specifically that renewable energy projects would not be allowed on public lands without what’s called ‘no net loss of AUMs,’” he said. “That means if they take 4,300 acres out of production from a ranch they’ve got to provide it somewhere else.”

Federal land is generally not subject to local zoning, but such an ordinance could carry some weight as the BLM makes a decision. The area proposed for the Star Range project is near a 4,800-acre block of public land, called Milford Flats South, the BLM leased last year to another firm that has its eye on building a 600-megawatt project. This block is one of three SEZs in Utah.

Across six sunny southwestern states, the BLM has established 19 solar energy zones, spanning 285,000 acres. In addition to Milford Flats South, there are federal solar zones in nearby Escalante Valley, 6,614 acres, and Wah Wah Valley, 6,097 acres.

The BLM will accept public comment on the Star Range project starting May 24, when it holds a virtual public meeting.

174 Power Global is a subsidiary of Hanwha Energy Corp., a global conglomerate based in South Korea. The company’s name refers to 174 petawatts, or the amount of solar energy the Earth receives at any moment. A petawatt is a quadrillion watts, or a billion megawatts.

According to the BLM, the company selected the spot west of Minersville because the land is relatively flat and adjacent to a major transmission line. It is sandwiched between the Union Pacific tracks and the 345-kilovolt Sigurd-to-Red Butte power line, operated by Rocky Mountain Power.

The solar array would tie directly into that transmission line.