What solar needs to penetrate more deeply in Colorado

Solar’s big gains in Colorado, but how it can be sold more broadly 

by Allen Best

Solar panels at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

Solar panels, such these at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle, Colo., need virtually no water, once they are manufactured. Photo/Allen Best

Solar numbers in Colorado are starting to add up. A recent study by the Colorado Energy Office found that 30,000 photovoltaic solar installations exist in the state, sufficient to power 100,000 homes.

The combined capacity of 540 megawatts still pales in comparison to the 1,410-megawatt capacity at the Comanche complex in Pueblo and 1,339-megawatt capacity at Craig. Too, some will also point out the obvious: the sun doesn’t always shine.

But if solar remains distant as an energy source, it’s now moving rapidly into the mainstream, part of a now fast-moving transition in our energy paradigm.

Reduced cost explains much of this greater deploying, according to Rebecca Cantwell, director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association. In remarks at the Alliance Center last week, Cantwell pointed out that solar cells today cost 100 times less than they did in 1977, during the last big binge of constructing coal-fired power plants in Colorado.

Unlike those big power plants, she pointed out, solar can be deployed on many scales. Collectors are now available that you can set outside on a park bench, to recharge your phone while you toss a Frisbee to your dog. At the other extreme, some utilities are now deploying giant solar farms.

Solar has become strong enough that a pilot project, involving a rural electrical cooperative, is being developed with the goal of creating a replicable business model that does not rely upon state mandates or subsidies.

Cantwell also mentioned that it would make sense to put solar panels on the city’s tall buildings. She reported that it shouldn’t be that hard, but did not detail what has to be done.

But she did point to a “big looming issue,” the need to reform the business model of utilities. Amory Lovins talked about this decades ago, pointing out that utilities should be paid for the services they deliver, not just the number of electrons they deliver. What we care about, he famously said, is that our beer is cold, not how much electricity it takes to chill it.

Regulation of investor-owned utilities, now in place for about a century, encourages large-scale but inefficient supply. But this has also worked against expansion of renewable energy, which has almost always been more expensive than fossil fuel-based energy until the last few years.

Now, some utilities are plotting their strategies about how to evolve to this new reality of expanded deployment of smaller decentralized energy sources such as rooftop collectors.

Xcel Energy earlier this year announced a new program, Our Energy Future. The program has several elements, including new opportunities for customers to buy solar but at the utility-owned installations such as one now being constructed at Pueblo through a program called Solar*Connect.

Two pilot programs involving battery storage are also being launched by Xcel. Working in partnership with Panasonic Enterprise Solutions at a site near Denver International Airport, Xcel will pilot a program for commercial customers. The second test of battery storage will be in the city’s Stapleton neighborhood, where nearly 20 percent of homes have rooftop solar.

But who will be in charge? In March, at the COSEIA annual conference in Broomfield, Karl R. Rabago, executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, suggested that leaving utilities in charge as we decentralize energy production on rooftop and other locations was akin to the company stores of the old coal-mining towns.

“Increasingly, today’s traditional utility looks and feels a lot like that,” he said.

Calling that example to mind, Cantwell said that Colorado, after demonstrating among the most brisk of leadership, has been slipping of late.

Still, clean-tech companies have been finding Denver and Colorado more broadly attractive. Sunrun last December announced it was relocating from California to an office on the 16th Street Mall. There, it now has 300 of its 4,000 direct employees. It is also looking to hire 800 people, said Walker Wright, the company’s director of public policy.

Wright pointed out that Sunrun was courted with incentives by a number of states, including Nevada and Arizona, but chose Colorado. A major draw, he said, was the reputation of Denver as a haven for “young, hip professionals who love tech.” He also noted the high penetration of solar, No. 8 in the nation (compared to No. 23 in population). “There’s something in the water here,” he conjectured.

For solar to grow, he emphasized, it has to be sold as more than just an answer to an environmental problem. Some favor it for energy security, for example, “We have to push as many angles as possible,” he said.

Like Cantwell, he also discussed the evolving battle between distributed energy providers and traditional utilities. And solar, he said, is no longer a “small cottage industry,” but rather a “challenge to utilities in the way that Uber is a challenge to taxi drivers and Airbnb is a challenge to hotels.”

Experts say the electrical grid can still accommodate much larger quantities of renewable energy without encountering problems related to intermittency. But for deeper penetration, improved storage techniques will be necessary, possibly including batteries.

Wright pointed to work by two major companies, Tesla and Solar City. Elon Musk sits on the boards of directors of both, he said. He suggested that between now and 2019, the price of battery storage will tumble just as precipitously as solar panels did between 2000 and 2009.

All of this bodes well for Denver, with its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Representatives of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health said current emission sources are: commercial 35%, residential 15%, gasoline vehicles 15%, food production 14%, air travel 7%, fuel production 6%, diesel vehicles 4%, cement production 3%, and waste (including landfills) 1%.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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