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Solar projects expected to contribute more to Colorado’s energy profile

In an otherwise banner time for solar energy, May and June were not such hot months in Weld County, where rainfall practically doubled its average, the most in almost 50 years. There seemed to be more cloudy days than not.

Those relying on solar panels to help offset their electricity bills by harnessing the power of the sun’s rays may just have been in a seasonal slump.

Unlike a downturn in the economy or plummeting demand for oil and gas, solar was bound to make a quicker comeback — when the storms cleared out. In Colorado, the sun always shines again.

While no one today would say solar will ever overtake fossil fuels as an energy source — maybe if the sun never set — it’s worth it to use all the tools in the tool box, officials say.

Solar is still almost too small to count as a contributor to Colorado’s portfolio — but industry insiders say don’t count it out. In the first quarter of the year alone, the residential solar market in the United States grew 76 percent from the same time last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C. And that’s the slowest season of the year for solar installations.

Ken Johnson, spokesman for the SEIA, said though the U.S. is said to have 100 or so years of reserves in crude and natural gas, it’s still finite.

“At some point, you’ll run out,” Johnson said. “More and more people are going to solar because it saves them money, and it helps protect the environment.

“By the end of 2016, solar is expected to generate enough electricity to help offset 45 million metric tons of carbon emissions. That’s equivalent to removing 10 million cars from the road.”

While popularity of fossil fuels remains high — especially with the shale revolution, in which oil and gas exploration companies tapped into much of those long-locked resources with the advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — the world also has learned a little about its volatility.

The revolution brought a glut of oil and gas on the market, so demand and prices sunk. Abundant fossil fuels, however, reduced demand for renewable energy, which enjoyed strong political and social popularity prior to 2010, when most thought the world was close to reaching “peak oil.”

New politics — and much lower prices — have helped bring renewable energy back to help pump juice to the power grid.

Solar is now the fastest growing energy sector in America, Johnson said.

Related: Energy Pipeline: Solar projects expected to contribute more to Colorado’s energy profile

The rise of solar

According to state marketing efforts, there’s plenty to go around, with 300 sunshine days a year.

But still, solar energy represents only a sliver of the state’s electricity portfolio.

In Colorado, solar electricity represents not even a half of a percent. Coal makes up the most of the state’s generation, followed by natural gas. Wind power has finally shot into the teens at 14 percent, but solar is still behind the decimal point and only slightly above the lowest producer, biomass.

All the while, Colorado has some of the most forward thinking policies on encouraging solar gardens, and its statewide renewable portfolio standard — a legislative mandate to have at least 30 percent of the state’s electricity needs to be met by renewables in just five years. There is still a lot of room left for solar.

In 2004, Colorado was the first state in the country to install a renewable portfolio standard, meaning utilities would be required by the year 2020 to have 20 percent of their electricity generated by renewable energy. The Legislature in recent years bumped that up to 30 percent.

The state in recent years has made going solar a lot more achievable with the Community Solar Garden Act. That act, passed in 2010 and implemented in 2012, allowed third-party companies to harness the sun’s rays and sell shares of that to consumers — those who either couldn’t afford solar panels, or who rented, or those whose homes were not suitable for rooftop solar.

“That was a really big driver in the jump in solar in Colorado,” said Joyce McLaren, a senior energy analyst with the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden. She focuses on policy matters throughout the country, and helps decision-makers and regulators with research for their renewable energy questions.

The Colorado Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, also passed in 2010 with the charge to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants set the wheels in motion to improve natural gas’ role in the state’s energy power. Power authorities set about decommissioning coal-powered plants, or transforming them, by 2017. Less reliance on coal meant the door cracked a little wider to include renewables.

Since then, community solar gardens, as well as commercial scale solar arrays have sprouted throughout the Front Range.

The case of Greeley

The city of Greeley, as an example, has two solar arrays helping power the Greeley Family FunPlex and its water and sewer wastewater plant — both large energy users. Two more solar gardens power the city’s water filtration plants in the foothills. The city may be considering more.

“There’s a definite serious discussion of how those renewable energy sources can be used, and I want the city to be involved in and challenge ourselves to think about how that helps not only ourselves but how it impacts the community as a whole,” said City Manager Roy Otto.

The ideas for the arrays came during the recession, when the city was looking at several ways to cut costs.

Both city arrays have the capacity to generate 500 kilowatt hours of electricity. The plan was to save on 40 percent of energy costs on some high energy-use buildings, said Joel Hemesath, public works director for Greeley. The FunPlex’s solar array is coming up on one year of operation.

Unfortunately, those arrays take land — land the city doesn’t have. That means there likely won’t be any new arrays built specifically for Greeley without some creativity, Hemesath said.

Tom Dingeman shepherded the city’s wastewater plant array, which was operational in early 2013. With the city budget being in dire straights for about four to five years, Dingeman said he naturally was on the lookout for ways to cut costs. The solar array came with no upfront costs, a 20-year power purchase agreement with the developer, and no annual maintenance issues.

“It helps to reduce our operating costs here when it comes to electricity,” Dingeman said. “If we can keep the budget in check, that certainly helps with sewer rates. It’s a small component, but would probably have a positive effect” on consumer bills.

The city had been paying about $23,000 a year in its wastewater energy bill. The solar arrays help shave up to $10,000 off that bill, Dingeman said. In addition, the city receives renewable energy credits — about 11 cents for every kilowatt hour the system produces — which equates to about $87,000 a year, Dingeman said.

“There are no downsides at all,” Dingeman said.

Otto said solar will likely be a discussion item in the city’s future comprehensive planning to see how it could benefit the community as a whole.

Tesla, known for its electric cars, for example, is working on a battery to store solar energy in the home. That could be a game changer in the future, Otto said.

“I think you’ll find it will become a more viable energy source,” Otto said.

Related: Obama works to expand solar energy for all Americans

Solar to come

While solar in Weld County is relatively small, some residents are gaining some benefits from solar at the utility level.

A Fort Collins-based electric utility will build two solar arrays in Weld County this year to provide enough juice to power 1,300 homes.

Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association is developing the two arrays that together total 8 megawatts for its northern Colorado electric needs.

The solar arrays, which will be arranged in two 40-acre lots, one between Windsor and Greeley; the other will be northeast of Windsor near Severance.

“We would like it to be the first of many, but we have to evaluate each one on its merits,” said David White, member relations manager for PVREA, which serves 38,000 customers in Larimer, Weld and Boulder counties. “We think that we should be evaluating all of the potential energy sources based upon reliability, economics and the environment, and this project made sense in light of that.”

“The beauty of that is, it benefits all of our members, not just those who can afford (solar panels on their roofs),” White said.

PVREA started its first community solar garden in 2013 at its company headquarters just west of Windsor; it was fully purchased by the time it was built. The utility built a second community solar garden north of Fort Collins, which is today 90 percent sold. They’ll look to build a third when demand is evidenced by a waiting list.

But the new arrays, consisting of a total of 35,000 panels, are different than those gardens.

The solar generation facilities will be directly tied into the cooperative’s distribution system and used as a local energy source, contributing to the local power mix for all PVREA members.

“The community solar farm projects were successful, so we started researching additional renewable energy avenues that benefit our membership and the environment, said CEO Jeff Wadsworth in a news release. “These solar generation facilities help achieve the goals of providing affordable, renewable power from a local energy source.”

PVREA has entered into a 20-year contract with Silicon Ranch Corp., a Tennessee-based company, to purchase the power generated from the two generation facilities. Power prices are locked for the duration of the contract, White said. The arrays likely won’t have a visible impact to the outside world, but every little bit helps.

“Even though it’s kind of significant, it’s probably not enough that there’s going to be significantly felt (in consumers bills), but because it is a price that’s locked in for the next 20 years, we see good potential for savings well on into the future. What would be more likely is we would create rate stabilization. So there will be less (price) increases in the future.”

The goal is to complete the project and deliver energy by the end of 2015.

Opening the door

Colorado’s political environment has shown through the years a balanced approach to energy, officials say. More attention has been paid to solar in recent years, with newer policies and standards.

This year, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that will open the door to allow in more solar in Colorado.

Previously, the law stated that residents could only invest in community solar gardens in their own county. Hickenlooper’s signature means that residents from any county adjacent to one in which a solar garden is being installed can participate.

Of the 15 active solar gardens in Xcel Energy’s portfolio, Weld County has none connecting to Xcel’s grid. Xcel provides power to much of Weld.

“It will really open things up for Weld residences,” said Kevin Cray, program manager for Xcel’s community solar program, of the adjacent county rule.

What that means is Weld residents, for example, could buy energy from a solar array in Adams, Larimer or even Boulder counties, given the counties area adjacent to Weld on all fronts.

But the reverse could work as well, said Karen Gados, spokeswoman for Sunshare, a Colorado company that is developing community solar gardens across the Front Range. Weld County, with its expansive territory, doesn’t quite have the population base that could sell a solar array quickly. Some areas, like Denver, don’t have a lot of available, vacant land.

“What could potentially happen, for example, if there’s a lot of land in Weld County that would be great for solar (flat, unincumbered and available), you could build in Weld and sell to residents of Adams County,” Gados said. Weld hasn’t been seen as much of an option, Gados said, but this new law could have SunShare officials reconsidering.

SunShare, after all, was founded on the principals of bringing solar to everyone, regardless of whether their home could accommodate PV panels or if they lived in apartments.

“With that bill, that will open a lot of doors.”

This article was written by Sharon Dunn from Greeley Tribune, Colo. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.