Transition Steamboat talk discusses community-owned solar panels
May 5, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Alternative energy advocate Gates Gooding told almost 50 people at Olympian Hall on Wednesday night that community-owned energy facilities such as solar arrays could strengthen the local economy while promoting sustainability by reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Customers of Yampa Valley Electric Association spent $36 million on energy in 2010, and much of the profit was directed to Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, Gates told people gathered at a meeting hosted by Transition Steamboat.
"If we could reduce some of that, we could put those dollars back into the community," Gooding said. "It's a great economic stimulus. Not only are we meeting the goal of becoming sustainable, we're (addressing the) long-term goal of economic stability and resiliency."
Gooding is a member of a sub-group of Transition Steamboat, New Energy Solutions for Steamboat. He moderated a panel discussion involving Leslie Larocque, business development manager for a firm called McKinstry in Golden; Jason Haber, energy programs manager for the Aspen Community Office of Resource Efficiency; and Paul Spencer, of Clean Energy Collective in Carbondale.
Spencer said solar arrays owned collectively by people in a community are an up-and-coming way to cut the cost of investing in solar energy. Instead of the $10,000 to $15,000 it typically costs to place solar panels on a private residence, collective solar installations allow people to obtain a portion of their household energy for as little as $500, the cost of one panel. And with the cooperation of their local utility company, they could look forward to recovering their investment within 10 to 15 years. During the 50-year lifetime of the solar panels, household investors could realize a 400 to 900 percent return on that investment, Spencer said.
Jim Chappell, manager of consumer accounts for YVEA, attended Wednesday's meeting but did not speak.
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On Thursday, he said YVEA, the rural electric cooperative serving about 26,500 customers primarily in Routt and Moffat counties, is accomplishing many of the goals described by Gooding and Spencer.
Households that invest in a community collective solar project need not own their home to enjoy the benefits, Spencer said, nor do homeowners need to worry about losing their investment if they sell their property. The electricity generated by the solar panels is portable. The power moves with the owners' electrical accounts, and their rebates show up on their regular bills. If an owner moves outside the area, Clean Energy Collective will broker the sale of their panels.
The collectives also benefit local utilities like YVEA, Spencer said, because they gain access to renewable energy infrastructure without having to pay for it.
A collective's relationship with the local utility is crucial, Spencer said. In Pitkin and Garfield counties, he frequently works with Holy Cross Electric, which rebates collective solar owners for the power they generate at retail rates.
"It becomes a symbiotic relationship," he said. With a collective solar array, "you own part of the solution instead of solely a one-way relationship with the utility."
Chappell confirmed Gooding's remarks to the effect that YVEA's contract to buy electricity forbids YVEA to own or collaborate with a solar farm.
Chappell noted that Spencer said Holy Cross gets 12 percent of its power from alternative sources. YVEA obtains 11.6 percent of the electricity it sells from renewable sources — primarily from wind farms that Xcel owns or contracts with. Customers can buy wind power at slightly higher rates.
The 11.6 percent means YVEA already has exceeded a state mandate that it obtain 10 percent of its power from alternative sources by 2020.
Spencer said Holy Cross decided to become more active in terms of providing alternative energy after polling its customers.
"We did, too," Chappell said. "A majority of our customers said, 'Yes, we support YVEA providing renewable energy, but don't raise my electric bill to do it.' That's been the reaction of our customers for many years."
Chappell said although YVEA's dollars to buy electricity go to Xcel, the cooperative also returns money to the local economy in terms of its own payroll and at mines and power stations that produce the power.
Chappell said YVEA is in the midst of renegotiating its contract with Xcel and he is unaware of whether the freedom to work with solar farms is on the table. However, he said YVEA is contesting Xcel's proposals to increase rates and change billing methods.
Also on the panel
Larocque's firm has completed energy-efficiency projects for the Hayden and Soroco school districts, Routt County and the city of Steamboat Springs. She said McKinstry's business model allows clients to upgrade energy-consuming systems from lighting to heating in large public buildings and pay off related debt with their savings on energy costs.
The cost per energy of improving efficiency always is lower than the cost of alternative energy, she said.
Haber said Aspen and Pitkin County impose impact fees on power users that consume inordinate amounts of power — large homes with snowmelting systems, for example — and choose not to mitigate that consumption with alternative energy projects on site. Those fees raised $10 million during the building boom in the past decade, and the monies have been used for rebates and grants to support sustainable energy projects.