Economy & Economic Development  April 8, 2011

Energy park approval lights up future employment

ROCKPORT – Craig Harrison is the first to admit he couldn’t have found a better site for his proposed Niobrara Energy Park.

Harrison, owner of Loveland-based Harrison Resource Corp., started looking for the best possible site for a hybrid energy park about a year ago. The square-mile site he picked is in northwest Weld County, between the tiny towns of Rockport and Carr – so small their population is not listed on most maps – and just a few miles south of the Wyoming border. He purchased the parcel last August for $500,000 from Don and Jean Chadwick of Eaton, according to records from the Weld County clerk’s office.

The site itself has little to draw the eyes to – just a windswept 640 acres of scrubby, high desert. But it’s mostly what can’t be seen that’s the real attraction.

Running parallel to the property and buried underground are pipelines to deliver gas from the fast-developing Niobrara oil-and-gas play in the surrounding area. Also under the ground nearby are fiber optic lines to transmit information from an envisioned onsite data center.

“It’s right next to one of the largest fiber optic highways in the country,´ said Harrison, noting that the site offers year-round temperatures that help keep computers cool.

What can be seen at the property, about 35 miles north of Greeley, are electrical transmission lines along the property’s southern boundary that Harrison says could be connected to projects planned for the park, including a solar energy farm.

“This project sits on a massive infrastructure grid that’s already in place,” he said. “There’s electric transmission lines, gas lines, fiber optic lines. It’s a perfect location.”

Commissioners excited

Harrison’s proposal recently won the unanimous endorsement of the Weld County Commissioners, who lauded the energy park as a potential job-producing engine.

“Obviously, No. 1 is the creation of jobs,´ said Commissioner Douglas Rademacher. “This is a great opportunity for jobs, especially up in that area.”

Rademacher said Harrison found a site where everything seems to come together. “He did his homework and found a section of ground that had all the amenities he needs. It has all the pieces of the puzzle.”

Rademacher also noted that the proposed project site – so far from any significant population areas – has the remoteness that it needs to avoid neighborhood opposition.

“We had absolutely nobody come in and protest,” he said. “He talked to the neighbors and made sure they were aware of what he wanted to do.”

Rademacher said the proposed park is an exciting prospect for the county. “The economic possibilities are just about endless,” he said.

Harrison said the proposed energy park is a hybrid model, meaning it would include both alternative and traditional energy components. Included in the plans for the project are a solar farm to take advantage of the property’s treeless, sun-drenched location and a gas-firming plant where gas from the Niobrara oil-and-gas field could be burned to produce electricity for onsite facilities.

“I see the gas-fired firming plant as a very critical part of it because the other energies are rather intermittent,” Harrison said.

The project could also include a data center, where banks of computers could have access to the huge amounts of power they need to store and process information for remote clients. Harrison said such centers already consume an estimated 6 percent of all energy used in the nation and that’s expected to increase dramatically in the future.

He also foresees an energy research component on the site that could include wind and geothermal studies.

Harrison said his timing was particularly good with respect to the electrical transmission lines running along the southern boundary of the park. Last year, owners of the lines – Tri-State Generation and Western Area Power Authority – did a $33 million upgrade to increase the lines’ capacity.

“You might see a (transmission) grid but you might not be able to touch it,” he said. “That would have killed it all.”

Interest growing

Energy parks such as Harrison’s are relatively new but getting more attention. Another, much-larger 24,000-acre park has been proposed near Pueblo by local attorney Don Banner. But Banner’s proposal included a $5 billion nuclear power plant as its centerpiece, and in the wake of the ongoing Japanese nuclear disaster that part of the plan is meeting fierce resistance.

At the state level, local Reps. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, introduced House Bill 1255 to help local governments create energy park projects by using tax-increment financing. The parks created through such financing would encourage alternative energy companies to locate in the parks and bring high-paying jobs.

But Kefalas said he doesn’t think HB1255 would apply to Harrison’s park. “HB1255 is very explicit and we will make it very clear that the goal of alternative energy parks is not to generate electricity but to create parks where we can create jobs,” he said. The bill has been assigned to the House Finance Committee and may see a vote soon, Kefalas said.

Harrison said he, too, did not believe HB1255 would help in the development of the Niobrara Energy Park, especially given its remote location. But he does believe the park could generate hundreds of jobs and pull in employees from Cheyenne, Greeley, Fort Collins and the surrounding area.

Harrison said the Niobrara Energy Park is divided into nine parcels and he’s talking to a number of interested parties. “I do have a letter of intent to build a large-scale solar farm,” he said. “(The park) could be built by one big company or we may do nine separate projects with multiple uses on each parcel. Only time is going to tell what’s going to come of it.”

Harrison, whose company specializes in land and resource brokering and consultation, said he sees his role in the park as a “gatekeeper” of who buys land in the park and not as a developer. But now that he has county approval for more than 40 possible energy-related uses on the site, Harrison is expecting to see some activity at the park soon.

“It’s off the charts,” he said of the interest he’s receiving. “Everyone’s been waiting for the zoning and to get (county) approval. There’s a lot of things going on and a lot of irons in the fire.”

ROCKPORT – Craig Harrison is the first to admit he couldn’t have found a better site for his proposed Niobrara Energy Park.

Harrison, owner of Loveland-based Harrison Resource Corp., started looking for the best possible site for a hybrid energy park about a year ago. The square-mile site he picked is in northwest Weld County, between the tiny towns of Rockport and Carr – so small their population is not listed on most maps – and just a few miles south of the Wyoming border. He purchased the parcel last August for $500,000 from Don and Jean Chadwick of Eaton, according…

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