Harnessing the sun
May 29, 2016
Steamboat Springs — From a hillside along Moffat County Road 177 in Craig, it is clear who the big energy player is in the region.
In 2015, 2.1 million tons of coal were recovered from the Trapper Mine, where a dragline could be seen removing dirt from the underlying coal seam.
At the $1.2 billion Craig Station power plant, sitting on 1,120 acres, the capacity exists to produce 1,303 megawatts of power at any time. That is enough to power more than 200,000 homes.
The two operations dwarf what lies between them at the community solar garden — a 577-kilowatt system that sits on four acres. Given how much land the solar garden uses, it would need to be 9,033 acres to produce as much power as the neighboring power plant.
"That hillside is only going to produce so much (coal)," Yampa Valley Electric Association foreman John Cromer said while walking through the solar garden. "We have a lot to gain by being a part of a facility like this."
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It is evident that some residents do not like the idea of green energy being produced in their backyards, because it competes with their livelihood.
The regional economy relies on the coal industry. It employs hundreds of people, but there are no jobs at the solar garden.
"There were some miners that were upset about this," said Cromer, a Craig native and third-generation lineman.
That sentiment gives a glimpse into the fact that not everyone is behind the green energy movement, and Yampa Valley Electric Association, or YVEA, believes a majority of its customers are not willing to pay more for their electricity to cover incentives offered to people who install solar or other renewable energy.
"We find that our members are not inclined to doing that," YVEA General Manager Diane Johnson said.
Despite that, some businesses, homeowners and governments are making the investment and soaking in the savings a penny at a time.
The solar garden in Craig provided a unique opportunity for YVEA and its customers who want to add solar to their energy portfolio.
"I think that we've come to believe the community solar array model is a great model," Johnson said.
YVEA partnered with the for-profit Clean Energy Collective company to build the solar garden and get it running in January 2015.
Rather than making the investment in an entire system of their own, YVEA customers could buy individual panels at the garden for about $600.
The projected electricity savings during the first year was $45 per panel. It is projected those who buy a panel will recoup their investment in 16 years.
The garden is currently 79 percent sold.
"We would like to see it at 100 percent sold out, but I think we are pleased where it's at after a year," Johnson said.
Those who purchase a panel can track the performance of the array from a smartphone. Customers receive a corresponding credit on their electricity bills.
Any YVEA customer can buy into the solar garden, which presents an opportunity for renters. If customers move from the YVEA territory, they can sell their panels.
YVEA is planning another solar array for the Yampa Valley that will benefit customers with low incomes.
YVEA is working with a nonprofit that received a $1.2 million grant from the state to build five arrays with five electric associations in rural areas of Colorado.
Johnson said the array could be built at the YVEA building in Steamboat Springs or at the airport substation.
Hitting a milestone
While sentences are being handed down inside the Routt County Justice Center, the electrons are flowing off the roof where the county installed a 165-panel, 26-kilowatt system.
The system recently reached a milestone, having produced 300-megawatt hours of energy in the eight years and three months it has been operating.
"They've out-produced," said Tim Winter, Routt County's building and plant director.
The incentives to install solar have changed through the years, and Winter said they were fortunate to have negotiated a deal with Xcel Energy.
When the Justice Center was being built in 2007, Xcel, for a limited time, was offering to buy renewable energy credits in order to meet its state requirements. The Justice Center would get to keep the power produced. Xcel just wanted the credits for 20 years.
Since the panels became operational, Xcel has paid Routt County $72,365.
The power produced by the system is used entirely at the Justice Center and provides about 10 percent of the building's demand. The value of the energy produced so far is nearly $30,000, and the total value of solar production is slightly more than $100,000.
That means the county is about halfway toward recovering the cost of the $200,000 system, which has panels with 25-year warranties. Winter said none of the panels have failed yet.
The cost to install the solar panels in 2007 was about $8 per watt. Winter said that, today, the cost would be about $3.50 to $4 per watt.
Winter is eyeing other locations for future solar projects, but they come with complicated financial arrangements with many variables that he needs to convince the Routt County Board of Commissioners to tackle.
"There are scenarios where it would be extremely advantageous," Winter said. "I'd like to get a big one at the airport."
At Butcherknife Brewing Company in Steamboat, owners Mark Fitzgerald and Nate Johansing are now turning their hops into beer with help of a solar system on the south wall of their building along Elk River Road.
After a career coaching skiing, Johansing had a hand in several businesses that focused on sustainability.
He helped develop a concept of what was essentially a mobile hostel for ski areas. Utilizing huts built with recycled materials and solar systems, it would allow skiers to access the backcountry on gas snowmobiles or natural gas-powered snowcats.
Johansing then helped start a biodiesel company and worked for Emerald Mountain Energy, a Steamboat company that sells solar power systems.
"I told myself if I ever started another business, I wanted to take in what I learned," Johansing said.
When Johansing and Fitzgerald wrote up their business plan for the brewery, they included sustainability in the mission statement.
They worked with Sue Holland, at Emerald Mountain Energy, to secure a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture that would cover 25 percent of the project's cost. Holland has installed about 50 solar arrays with a total of 161 kilowatts of power.
The brewery will be able to depreciate the equipment and take advantage of an income tax credit; 30 percent of the cost of the system can be directly deducted from income taxes.
"It definitely makes it attractive," Johansing said. "If those tax credits stay around, it will only influence more people to do it. We need more green energy incentives, and we need more elected officials who are going to support that."
Butcherknife has a 12.5-kilowatt system that produces 25 to 30 percent of the electricity used at the brewery. The payback is expected to be between 10 and 12 years.
Getting over hurdles
Matt Piva abandoned his career as a chef to spend more time with family and find a job that allowed him to make or sell a product that was helpful to the world.
"I gave it some thought and said, 'This industry — solar — fits that bill,'" he said.
Piva has worked for Emerald Mountain Energy and attended school to earn certifications that focused on renewable energy. He then worked for Brightside Solar, based in Steamboat, before taking over the business in November. His company primarily does residential installations for houses both on and off the electricity grid.
"I love it," Piva said. "It's fantastic. We haven't even gotten close to being a solid market here."
According to YVEA, there are currently 52 solar installations connected to the YVEA distribution network.
Piva said he looks forward to the time when the market heats up for solar, and he thinks it's coming soon.
He said there are a few challenges that exist in the residential solar market.
"The biggest hurdle is that, ultimately, you are paying for your electricity upfront," Piva said. "A lot of people don't have that capital."
Piva said a good solar system capable of powering a home can cost between $20,000 and $30,000.
He said the only tax credit currently offered to residential customers to install solar in Northwest Colorado is the 30 percent income tax credit. Additionally, residences that do not use all of the power produced by the solar units can take advantage of net metering, which gives consumers credit for electricity sent back onto the grid.
"My message that I try to get out to people is doing solar electricity is affordable," Piva said.
He said array owners will see an increase in property values by installing solar, and they can expect to pay off their systems within seven to 10 years.
In order to make systems more affordable, Piva is working on ways to help customers finance the projects so little or no money is needed upfront.
Some energy experts believe incentives will continue to play a key role in the solar evolution.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the trade group that represents solar businesses, the 30 percent income tax credit has helped solar installation grow by 1,600 percent since the tax credit was implemented in 2006.
In 2015 the tax credit was extended to 2023.
"I think without the tax credit part of it, the return on investment is just dismal for most people," YVEA General Manager Diane Johnson said.
The trade group estimates there were 27 gigawatts of solar produced in the U.S. in 2015, and they expect that to grow to 100 gigawatts by the end of 2020. They also expect solar jobs to double to 420,000.
A group of solar enthusiasts gathered in November at the Moots bicycle factory in Steamboat, where the company has a nine-kilowatt system on its roof. With grants and tax credits, the company had to pay about 10 percent of the cost.
Megan Moore Kemp, who works as a key accounts representative for YVEA, explained how some electric cooperatives such as YVEA offer incentive programs.
"Other co-ops do offer incentives for solar," Moore Kemp said. "Our members have not really told us that that's what they want to pay for."
The Holy Cross Energy co-op, serving Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield established its WE CARE program (With Efficiency, Conservation and Renewable Energy) in 2004. Holy Cross's 55,000 customers all pay a 2 percent surcharge that generates $2 million annually.
Chris Hildred, who oversees the WE CARE program said a progressive Holy Cross board of directors voted for the surcharge.
"It has met the goal and is striving to continue to meet the goal going forward," Hildred said.
A Holy Cross customer installing a 15-kilowatt system would receive an $8,100 rebate.
Last year, the utility paid out $1 million in incentives to customers who installed renewable energy.
There is a total of 5,750 kilowatts of renewable energy in the Holy Cross network.
Last year, about 11 percent of the power used to supply Holy Cross's customers came from renewable energy produced locally.
About 1 percent of YVEA's power comes from renewable energy produced locally. YVEA is already meeting the 1-percent state requirement that goes into effect in 2020.
Susan Holland, with Emerald Mountain Energy, hopes that number increases and there will be a shift in the thinking of YVEA customers and the elected board of directors. The association serves a 7,000-square-mile area, including parts of Wyoming.
"If it was a normal market, and they did offer incentives, I'd be doing 65 projects per year," Holland said. "I hope it shifts soon, because I don't want to give up."
Johnson said one of the tools YVEA uses to gather feedback is customer surveys. She said previous surveys have shown customers respond positively to the idea of renewable energy, but it is a different response when customers are asked if they would be willing to pay more for it.
Before the Craig solar garden was built, YVEA asked its residential customers in a 2013 survey if they would be "somewhat" or "very likely" to buy solar panels in the solar garden. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said they were. Yet, only 109 of YVEA's 26,000 customers have bought panels.
"Based on these numbers, there doesn't seem to be a substantial interest in renewables," YVEA spokeswoman Tammi Strickland said. "If we have members that are interested in renewables, we feel we have the ability to provide them with that service, as we still have plenty of available blocks or panels at the solar garden."
Johnson said the YVEA customer base varies. While customers in the Steamboat area may be willing to pay more for using renewable energy, customers in other areas are not as interested.
"They would just like the bill to be as inexpensive as possible," Johnson said.