Monday, February 28, 2011

Submit Your Comment on BLM Big Solar Plans

     The Bureau of Land Management is planning to limit large scale solar development to defined areas.  This is a step forward from the "land rush" that recently occurred in the Mojave Desert, where the December 2010 stimulus funding led to biologists relocating tortoises ahead of the bulldozers in the Ivanapah Valley.  (Unfortunately, the desert tortoise is not a species that relocates well.)  However, there are several problems with the plan as it stands, particularly in Colorado. 

     All four of the proposed BLM solar zones are located in the San Luis Valley.  This could be because Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hails from the valley, or because XCEL Energy is bent on profiting from large solar plants and transmission lines.  This plan has insufficient geographic diversity - while the SLV gets the most sun, it isn't always the best sun.  XCEL's own study shows that in times of peak demand on the front range, summer afternoon, the valley is beset by monsoon clouds, lowering it's ability to carry loads.  This could be ameliorated by increasing the geographic diversity of solar arrays, for instance, placing them on the corners of irrigation circles rather than on public lands.  Battery storage can buffer variable power.

     Grid issues can happen in the winter as well - witness the recent problems in Texas and New Mexico.  Winter is the time when the entire San Luis Valley, top to bottom, can fog over for several days at a time, while the front range is sunny.  Geographic diversity outside the valley is necessary to cope with these situations.

     Further, the projects as proposed would require an expensive and controversial transmission line.  XCEL Energy recently slashed rooftop solar rebates, deepening its focus on large, remote projects.

     Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a citizens' alternative should be considered in the process.  Such an alternative should consider BLM areas in Colorado outside the San Luis Valley.

     Submit your comments here, or schedule to speak at the March 7 meeting:

BLM Comment Site - Until March 17

      From Salida, Colorado's newspaper, the Mountain Mail:

Solar energy meetings begin March 7 in Alamosa

    Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu recently announced a schedule of public meetings to gather comments on a comprehensive environmental study that identifies public lands suitable for utility-scale solar energy production.

    One of the meetings is scheduled March 7 at the San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center Education and Conference Center, 1921 Main St. in Alamosa.

    Doors will open at 6 p.m. with the meeting beginning at 7 p.m. and continuing until everyone who wishes to speak has been heard.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

March 7 - Solar Gardens Panel at CU Featuring Rep. Claire Levy

Mark your calendar!

Monday, March 7th, 2011, 7 pm
Benson 180, on CU-Boulder campus
(just west of the intersection of Folsom and Colorado Avenue in  Boulder)
Free and open to the public.
A community solar garden is a cooperatively owned set of solar panels that produce clean electricity and reduce owners’ electric bills. Community solar gardens are part of Boulder County’s energy future, but how do we get there? Join us for a panel with six energy experts who will discuss how we can establish Boulder County’s first community solar garden.
Panel Members
Claire Levy
State Representative  (HD13), sponsor of the Community Solar Gardens bill passed last year by the Colorado State Legislature
Will Toor
Boulder County Commissioner              
Greg Ching
Representative of the Solar Gardens Institute
Steve Bauhs
Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group Energy Chair
Jonathan Koehn
Regional Sustainability Director for the city of Boulder
Paula Connelly
Attorney for Xcel
Sponsored by the Sierra Club and the CU Environmental Center

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Where are Colorado Solar Rebates? Look in the San Luis Valley!

     I didn't mean to say "I told you so", but, I told you so.

     Let me start by saying that XCEL Energy employs some very fine people who take their duties very seriously and believe in the company's motto "Responsible by Nature."  They have worked very hard for renewables integration, Community Solar Gardens in particular.  That's why the company's actions of the past week have been disappointing, but not entirely unexpected.

     From my "Save the San Luis Valley" blog on June 14, 2010:

San Luis Valley Transmission Line Could Cost Colorado 25,000 Solar jobs over ten years

     In this article. 25,000 job-years over ten years corresponds almost exactly with the 2,000-3,000 jobs at risk today from XCEL's recent rebate cuts:

     The cuts came only four days days after the transmission line's approval by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission:

     The proposed San Luis Valley - Calumet - Comanche transmission line would run directly from Colorado's newest coal-fired power station into the San Luis Valley.  With no requirement to carry renewable energy, the line would often be bringing in carbon intensive energy.
     Both the transmission line and the massive solar development it would lead to would provide XCEL guaranteed profits by increasing everyone's electric bill - a strategy it explicitly adopted in 2003 called "Building the Core":

     Solar on rooftops, owned by the people who use it, reduces the amount of electricity XCEL sells, reducing its profits.  While XCEL's investor's are given a guaranteed rate of return on their power plants and transmission lines, the company has opposed even studying a plan to give small solar investors the same deal:

Colorado Republicans Kill ‘No-Brainer’ Renewable Energy Study

     Even though XCEL operates Colorado's "Public Service Company," and uses the motto "Responsible by Nature, they are an investor-owned, for-profit company that is required by law to maximize its profits.  As a corporation, they have "personhood" and may petition the government for a redress of grievances.  What this means is that a government-sanctioned monopoly lobbies the state and federal governments to maintain and extend its control, and raise customer rates for building increasingly questionable transmission and generation projects.  This is why we call them "power companies."

     Clearly, deep reform is needed.  Just as AT&T and IBM lost their near-monopolies when new technologies arrived, the utilities are in for some big transformations.  We need to end the incentives to build ever increasing infrastructure with diminishing returns for the public as demand for electricity actually decreases.

     The San Luis Valley is home to Great Sand Dunes National Park and four National Wildlife Refuges.  People there have deeply opposed solar projects that would cover thousands of acres with mirrors, or would put 650-foot towers a few miles due west of the Sand Dunes.  For those who have witnessed the valley's great herds of elk and antelope, its wetlands supporting migratory Sandhill Cranes, or its unique off-grid communities, this master plan is an ecological and social nightmare in the making - in the name of solar energy, of all things!  Where I live, in this valley, we know that solar panels bring independence, clean power with no electric bill.  It's not about destroying the land to save the Earth, while the rooftops sit empty of panels.
     Yet the federal Bureau of Land Management has proposed four solar study areas in Colorado - and all are proposed to be in the San Luis Valley!  Colorado's 30% renewable energy standard requires only 3% be distributed energy - leaving the other 27% for big solar and wind projects.  The recent cut in solar rebates has been taken to keep rooftop solar within that 3% - and preserve the 27% for XCEL and big solar companies.

     The ire of the citizens finally came to a boiling point on December 6, 2010 in the town of Saguache, at a hearing for a proposed 1,500 acre facility by now nearly defunct Tessera Solar:

Residents Fight Over Solar Projects

      The consensus among local residents is that solar should be developed as locally owned distributed generation on the corners of farmers' fields, on rooftops and landfills.  Imagine what would happen if large numbers of San Luis Valley residents could receive extra income from feeding solar electricity into a grid improved by reconductoring the three transmission lines currently in place over Poncha Pass.  Rapidly dropping solar panel prices, super long-life batteries, and "virtual power plant" software can make dispersed solar mini-plants work together using the existing grid.

     A recent study by Lawrence Berkeley Labs with the wonderful title "Implications of Wide-Area Geographic Diversity for Short-Term Variability of Solar Power" shows that distributed solar can reduce issues with intermittent power.  After all, 1,500 acres isn't that big if you're a cloud.

     When these master plans were made at both the state and federal levels, Concentrated Solar Power (using mirrors to generate heat to run a turbine or engine) was cheaper by the watt than solar PV panels.  Now, PV is the lower cost alternative, and prices are expected to continue dropping:

Busting 4 myths about solar PV vs. concentrating solar

     Anyone with a solar job who wants to keep it had better get to work on fixing this.  What would responsible solar development look like?  We have some ideas!  

 Ten Principles of Responsible Solar Development

     It's time to form a coalition for community power at the state and national levels.  With the incentive to stay on the grid gone, homes, businesses, neighborhoods, and entire towns can produce and store their own energy - independent of the grid.  It's a great feeling when you flip on that light switch!


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tell Xcel they can't squash solar

Last week Xcel Energy suspended its solar program, destabilizing the market for clean energy.
This move has effectively frozen solar sales while customers wait for a possible program restart – with a devastating impact on small businesses and the Colorado economy. We can’t let a monopoly choke off competition and curtail clean energy. That’s why we need your help.
Mark your calendar: join the Rally for Clean Energy Jobs at the state capitol (west steps) in Denver THIS FRIDAY, 2/25 at 12noon.
We need to see you there to help fight back against Xcel’s outrageous activities – and to send a clear message that a monopoly shouldn’t be allowed to control the fate of Colorado's clean energy industries and put thousands of jobs at risk.
Can you help spread the word about this event?

IF you are not able to attend the rally on Friday, please submit a brief comment on the PUC website (Docket: 11A-135E) to urge them to restart Xcel’s solar program before any more economic damage is done.

Here's some background on this important issue – and why Xcel’s actions are so concerning: - Colorado voters have sent a clear message that they want to increase clean energy and help promote economic development. Building on the success of Amendment 37, there are now 5,300 solar jobs and more than 400 solar businesses in Colorado. Colorado is now the #2 state in the U.S. for solar jobs per capita. - Xcel Energy is using its monopoly to disrupt the market for clean energy and choke off competition. Xcel is now the 2nd major utility to suspend its solar program. Black Hills Energy in Pueblo suspended its solar program in October, which led to a 90% decrease in solar sales and significant job losses while customers wait for incentives to return. The Colorado economy can’t afford a devastating similar crash statewide. An estimated 2,000-3,000 Colorado jobs will be lost by the end of the year unless there is a rapid restart to the state’s successful solar programs. - Every industry needs a stable marketplace to compete. Xcel’s Solar*Rewards program was on schedule, slowly ratcheting down incentives as solar costs decreased. Incentives were reduced nearly 50% during the past two years as solar electric costs decreased by 40-50% during the same period. The program has been working. The key was that program changes were predictable, incremental and transparent so consumers and businesses could react. - Xcel Energy administering its own solar program is a conflict of interest. As a monopoly utility, Xcel has a financial stake in disrupting and destabilizing the clean energy marketplace. A monopoly shouldn’t be allowed to pull the rug out from under Colorado’s small businesses and put thousands of jobs at risk. - Xcel is exhibiting a blatant double-standard. If Xcel was forced to change its business model in less than 24 hours without advanced notice or due process it would be crying foul to policymakers and the public about the injustice. - Colorado needs an independent 3rd party administrator to oversee its solar program. Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy have demonstrated that they are either incapable or unwilling to ensure a stable marketplace for healthy competition. That’s why other states have implemented an independent solar program administrator to avoid these conflicts of interest. Colorado should too. - The Public Utilities Commission should deny efforts to gut clean energy programs. The PUC should seek to restart Xcel’s and Black Hills’ solar programs quickly, before any more economic damage is done, and begin a fair and transparent stakeholder process to ensure stable marketplace.
Attend the Rally for Clean Energy Jobs this Friday, February 25 at 12pm, at the Colorado State Capitol building, (west steps) and show your support for clean energy in Colorado and for future generations.

Again, if you are not able to attend the rally on Friday, please submit a brief comment on the PUC website (Docket: 11A-135E) to urge them to restart Xcel’s solar program before any more economic damage is done.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Colorado PUC Proposes Community Solar Gardens Rules

     The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has proposed rules for the Community Solar Gardens program.  The rules are open to comment until the public hearing on March 18.  Some highlights:

- No subscriber may account for more than forty percent of the output of the solar garden.

- Subscriber organizations are required to maintain a waiting list of potential subscribers, and transfer fees are limited to one percent.

- Commercial and industrial customers receive a proportional credit for demand charges.

- Subscribers have the option to keep the Renewable Energy Credits from their share of the Solar Garden.

- Utilities must maintain a reservation queue for solar gardens under their standard offer programs, and can charge up to $100 per kilowatt refundable deposit.

- At least five percent of capacity is allocated to subscribers with income below 185% of the poverty line

Link to Community Solar Gardens Proposed Rules

 Email to learn how the Solar Gardens Institute can help you create your solar garden!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Economic Development / Distributed Generation for Colorado

     HR 1228, recently introduced by Rep. Judy Solano, directs the Colorado Office of Economic Development to study a standard offer, or feed-in tariff policy for renewable energy.  It's called ED/DG, or "Edge", and it truly would give Colorado an edge!

     This bill is currently before the agriculture committee, and facing a bit of a headwind.  Let your state representative know - this would benefit farmers all over the state, who will be able to put solar panels on the corners of irrigation circles.

Fact Sheet on ED/DG


ED/DG Features

Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California by Al Weinrub

There has been a LOT of movement in community solar systems in California - so much that I am going to take a trip to the Bay Area to share in the excitement!

"This paper identifies the factors that favor local decentralized generation of electricity: its economic benefits to local communities, its cost-effectiveness, its minimization of environmental impacts, its potential to rapidly meet renewable energy targets, and its increased system security. The paper also identifies obstacles to local renewable power and outlines policies that can promote its development."

"Community Power reflects the reality that all electric power is not equal: the impact of electric power production on our ecosystem and on our communities depends on the economic, environmental, political, and social conditions under which the electricity is produced. And from this perspective, the impacts on our communities of remote central-station renewable power and local decentralized renewable power are very different indeed."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

DOE Resources for Community Solar

The Department of Energy releases guides for local governments and community groups.

Shade Over Pavement

Community Owned Solar Over Parking Lots

     It’s all too often I’ll have to look around a bit to find a shaded parking spot.  On a hot day, my car interior gets up to a gajillion degrees.  On a recent visit to Taos, I had the pleasure of parking beneath a solar array at KTAO, a solar powered radio station, which saved my broccoli from wilting.

     I’ve heard that, without conservation, to supply all the electrical power needed for the United States with solar power would require an area approximately the size of South Carolina.  This sounds huge, but consider we have already covered an area the size of Georgia (a larger state) with pavement.  This is nothing but a distributed desert, and perhaps an even better place for solar panels than rooftops, which are often painted white.  There have been plans floated to pave the roads with solar panels, however, this is still in the research phase.  Putting the panels overhead has a lot going for it.

     Overhead solar panels shade cars, making people more comfortable and saving gas used to power air conditioners.  They keep the pavement cool, reducing the urban heat island effect.  Overhead panels can catch rainfall that would turn into oily runoff and use it to water landscaping.  They are theft-resistant without fencing.  And they are right where the new demand is coming electric cars.

     It’s also a great time for community-owned solar power, with tens of megawatts set to be built in 2011.  Colorado’s Community Solar Gardens Act allows for subscription-based solar up to two megawatts – that could cover acres and acres of parking.

     It’s worth more than writing about – it’s worth doing.  Our team has been pulling together all the tools we will need – developers, financiers, legal structures, and a new profession, community solar specialists we call “Solar Gardeners”. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

America's First Community Solar Project

    I've had a chance to visit the Ellensburg Community Renewable Park in Washington State.  The organizer, Gary Nystedt, has been incredibly friendly and agreed to advise us on our potential projects.  The project was conceived in 2003, first installed in 2006, and has continued to expand, completing its third phase in 2010 with a fourth phase underway.

    Ellensburg was a ground-breaker, the granddaddy of community solar projects!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mark Udall on the SUN Act

     In 2010,  Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) proposed the Solar Uniting Neighborhoods Act (S. 3136) , which will provide the standard 30% tax credit to residential customers who have their solar panels hosted off their property.  (Currently, residential (but not commercial) customers must locate panels on their own property to qualify for the tax break.)

     The SUN Act was set to be included in last years cap and trade legislation, which did not make it to a vote when the BP oil spill upset a delicate compromise that would have expanded offshore drilling.  I had a chance to speak with Sen. Udall last week, and his thought was that the bill would be "a nice thing" to include in the national 80% clean energy standard that the President announced in his State of the Union address.

     Community solar may yet make it to the Senate floor, in another compromise bill that includes nuclear energy and natural gas as "clean", but looks like our best bet for the 2011-12 congress.  The SUN Act is very simple, makes a lot of sense, and makes a tax break that currently favors certain home owners available to renters, condominium owners, and those who are simply shaded by trees.  I'm glad that it might be part of the solution at the federal level!

Joy Hughes
Founder, Solar Gardens Institute