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Rocky Mountain solar power

Lightsource bp has built on to its solar power in Colorado, with the completion of the 293 MW Sun Mountain project, joining the company's Bighorn Solar project in the Rocky Mountain State.

By Diane Mettler

Following up on the successful completion of the 300 MW Bighorn Solar project—
Lightsource bp’s first Pueblo project now powering the EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel mill—it has built further in the state, and its new Sun Mountain project is also their second project in Pueblo, Colorado.

The 293 MW Sun Mountain Project was partially developed when Lightsource bp took it over from the former developer. After Lightsource bp secured a power contract with Xcel Energy, the package was put together and McCarthy Building Companies, the contractor from the Bighorn project, was brought in as the constructor.

Sun Mountain, finished in December 2022, supports Xcel Energy’s plan to provide power from approximately 80 percent renewable sources and reduce carbon emissions by 85 percent by 2030. It also helps Colorado with its state-wide goal of a 26 percent emissions reduction by 2025, 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

The two projects together represent a half-billion-dollar private investment in Colorado’s clean power infrastructure, while contributing to the local economy and creating cleaner and healthier communities across the state, says the company.

Since the western states are where the solar market got started in the U.S.—think Nevada, California, Arizona—and Lightsource bp entered the U.S. solar market a little later, the company decided to look at some of the markets where less congested interconnection queues would enable them to move forward quicker or markets that were less popular.

Lightsource bp chose to develop projects in places like Alabama, Louisiana, Indiana and Arkansas, that were really new markets from a solar standpoint.
Colorado was an established solar market, but the interconnection process with Xcel was more inviting than other states in the far west.

“If you take a line from Colorado to Texas and then go east from that, we’re now active in probably 25 or 30 states in that region,” explained Kevin Smith, Lightsource bp CEO of the Americas. 

After Lightsource bp secured a power contract with utility Xcel Energy, the package for the Sun Mountain Solar project was put together and McCarthy Building Companies, the contractor from the company’s Bighorn solar project, was brought in as the constructor. McCarthy brought in a lot of local labor on the project. At the peak of construction on Sun Mountain, there were 400 workers on site.


“We’ve got a big pipeline—20 GW of projects in development—and just over 3.2 gigawatts of projects in operation and construction now.”

Lightsource bp’s first projects in Colorado were, in fact, the Bighorn project and the Sun Mountain project. Though they were never planned together, they ended up having a big impact in the same city, Pueblo.

The Bighorn solar project was awarded back in 2019. “It’s an interesting project in that we sell our energy to Xcel Energy, but their customer EVRAZ Steel is right there next to us. In fact, the facility is built on the steel mill’s land,” says Smith. “So, the electricity generated by Bighorn is going to power the steel mill. That was a partnership developed jointly by Xcel Energy and the steel mill. We bid into that and built the facility, and now we own and operate it on the steel mill’s land, which we leased for 35 years.

“There was another developer that was developing the Sun Mountain project that decided that they didn’t have the interest to move forward on it,” Smith added. “We ended up acquiring that back earlier, in 2021. It was partially developed, and then we ended up securing the bid from Xcel Energy for the power contract and then put the rest of the package together, the permits and equipment procurement.”

 The Sun Mountain and Bighorn solar projects together represent a half-billion-dollar private investment in Colorado’s clean power infrastructure, while contributing to the local economy and creating cleaner and healthier communities across the state.

Lightsource bp moved ahead with McCarthy as the EPC contractor. “They had built the Bighorn project for us and we had very good experience with McCarthy,” says Smith. “They have also built several projects for us in other parts of the U.S., including Texas.”

Bighorn and Sun Mountain turned out to be similar size projects—300 MW and 293 MW respectively—and represented a total investment of capital costs well in excess of $500 million. “These were our first two very large projects in Colorado, and they just both happened to be in Pueblo,” says Smith.

The building of the Bighorn project helped make the Sun Mountain project proceed even more efficiently.

“We have a good relationship with the town of Pueblo, and we went through the permitting process relatively smoothly the first time. They knew us, we knew them, and it was easier to go through the second time,” says Smith.

“And then, similarly, McCarthy was just finishing the Bighorn project when we were looking to go into construction on the Sun Mountain project. Some of the same crews actually moved over from Bighorn and some of the same project managers from both our side and from their side moved over on to the Sun Mountain Project.”

McCarthy brought in a lot of local labor throughout both projects. Smith estimates that at the peak of the Sun Mountain project, there were around 400 people on site.

In addition to the local labor to build the project, Sun Mountain supported domestic manufacturing jobs. The panels were sourced from Arizona-based First Solar. “We have a big relationship with First Solar. We’ve purchased upwards of 20 million panels from them,” says Smith. “We made a decision a couple years ago that we wanted to make sure we had secure supply from a U.S. supplier. First Solar is the largest U.S. manufacturer of solar power modules, and they’re expanding their manufacturing base in the U.S.


Lightsource bp’s first projects in Colorado were the Sun Mountain and the Bighorn projects, both located in Pueblo.


“We felt it made sense to secure module supply from a U.S. supplier. Also, First Solar has a different type of technology than the standard polysilicon panels. They have a thin film technology, and they’re one of the largest in the world.”

Other components included smart solar trackers by New Mexico-based Array Technologies, inverters supplied by German manufacturer TMEIC and transformers supplied by WEG, a Brazilian company.

Because of the timing, Lightsource bp had to deal with COVID restrictions on both projects.

“The great thing about building solar projects is even though it was 400 people working on site, it was outdoor construction on more than 1,500 acres,” says Smith. “And
McCarthy’s programs for safety and the COVID protocols were very well-developed. We were well prepared when Sun Mountain went into construction. And so we didn’t have any issues on site due to COVID.”

While the weather was cold during construction, it was nothing unusual for Colorado. “They had some snow and bitter cold, but nothing out of the ordinary that you wouldn’t expect to get for Colorado construction,” says Smith. “So, construction went very well.”


Ground cover was a big focus on both the Sun Mountain and Bighorn solar projects. Lightsource bp put in shortgrass prairie, which is a plant species indigenous to Colorado. The grass should help keep out invasive species like cheatgrass, which is known to increase wildfire risk. The two projects total almost 3,000 acres in size.


In the end, both projects were completed on time and went smoothly into commercial operation with the utility.

Ground cover was a big focus on both projects. Lightsource bp put in shortgrass prairie, which is a plant species indigenous to Colorado. The grass should help keep out invasive species like cheatgrass, which is known to increase wildfire risk.

“There’s almost 3,000 acres between those two projects and we looked very closely at the biodiversity issues. It’s really very custom for each project,” explained Smith. “For some of our projects, we’ve put in pollinator gardens and other local grasses. On other sites, we’ve got sheep grazing. For these projects, we looked at them closely and we made the decision to put in 3,000 acres of shortgrass prairie based on eco-region, site compatibility, community and ecological needs.”

With these two Colorado projects now successfully completed, Lightsource bp is looking ahead, to a bright future. “We’ve grown quickly over the last three to four years, and we’re looking to continue to expand, in the U.S. and world-wide,” says Smith.

The company is headquartered in London and has approximately 1,000 people globally, with the U.S. a key market. “Of what we’ve done over the last several years, more than 40 percent is coming out of the U.S., and we’re certainly seeing the U.S. as a huge market going forward.

 “The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that was passed by Congress in 2022 is also going to continue to not only fuel the solar markets to continue to move forward, but the IRA also is going to bring a lot of U.S. manufacturing and U.S. jobs back into the manufacturing sector in the U.S.,” added Smith.

“We’re really looking forward to working under the Inflation Reduction Act. The solar industry’s view is that by 2030, we should see a million direct jobs in the solar markets. Right now, there’s approximately 250,000 jobs across the U.S. in solar, but that’s continuing to grow rapidly as we see not only more projects, like Sun Mountain, getting built, but also announcements of additional manufacturing in the U.S.”

Right now, Smith says, solar is the cheapest source of energy across the U.S. “Utilities, even if they’re not looking at their carbon footprint or reducing greenhouse gases, they’re embracing solar energy because it’s cost effective. It’s good for the local community, provides local jobs, a good tax base, as well as low cost energy and contributes to America’s energy security.

 “That’s why we’re building projects in places like Alabama and Arkansas, where you wouldn’t normally expect to see a lot of renewable energy. They historically have been focused more on oil and gas, but they can’t debate the low cost price that they’re seeing with solar power.” 

Right now, though, Lightsource bp is continuing to also be very active in Colorado. “We have a number of other projects in the state that are in various stages of development,” says Smith. “We’re continuing to bid into Xcel and other utilities to sell the power. So, we hope to build a lot more in Colorado.”

Q1 2023