After their swearing-in next Tuesday, six new members of the Colorado Spring City Council should quickly scrutinize a bad decision made this week at the last meeting of the current council.
In a weird move to create an appearance of environmental stewardship, the Colorado Springs City Council — which doubles as the board of directors for Colorado Springs Utilities — voted 6-3 in favor of spending tens of millions of dollars on solar gardens. The first phase alone will cost ratepayers $750,000 a year for the next 20 years.
Two phases that will add more solar capacity in 2014 and 2015 will add hundreds of thousands more in annual expenses for the next 20 years if the Council/Utilities Board chooses to fund them.
This debacle could cost ratepayers up to $30 million. The three who voted against it — Tim Leigh, Angela Dougan and Lisa Czelatdko — are outgoing members of the council/Utilities board.
The Gazette’s editorial board fully supports efficient use of energy and environmental measures that make good sense. We’re all for Utilities paying financial incentives that encourage ratepayers to procure more efficient light fixtures, appliances, insulation and energy-efficient windows.
These subsidies — known by utilities professionals as “demand-side management” — reduce consumption at such a rate the utility quickly recoups its money. Everyone wins, along with the local economy.
If solar panels generated enough power to make them a cost-effective option, we would get behind the solar gardens decision. They do not. Solar panels are so inefficient the entire solar industry has, throughout most of its existence, consumed more energy than its panels have produced. Only this month did a Stanford University study find that solar panels may have finally begun harnessing slightly more energy than is consumed in building, deploying and maintaining them. The industry is a long way from genuinely helping the environment or creating bargain kilowatts for society.
This much we know as indisputable fact. Colorado Springs Utilities generates electricity at 2.6-cents per kilowatt hour. The solar panels Council just committed to generate electricity at 16-cents per kilowatt hour. The balance — 13.4 cents per kilowatt hour — is pure cost to ratepayers who may or may not view solar as a potential aid to the environment.
So, the council’s decision takes tens of millions of dollars out of play that could otherwise be used on serious environmental stewardship. It is money that could pay for insulation, LEDs, better refrigerators and all the other green measures that actually do more good than harm.
Unlike environmental subsidies, Utilities cannot possibly recoup its investment into solar panels that generate power so inefficiently.
The primary champion of the solar garden debacle is outgoing council member Brandy Williams, who claims this program might woo young, affluent business people to town.
If that were true, it wouldn’t be a bad idea. But it’s probably not true. We think young professionals are smart enough to know a horrendously bad investment when they see one. We also doubt the premise that inefficient solar panels are so fashionable as to weigh heavily on a person’s decision to live and work in Colorado Springs. Williams might do better asking City Hall to subsidize sushi.
What most likely brings young, affluent professionals to any city is this: JOBS.
The decision to splurge on solar may actually reduce jobs. Estimates place the annual cost to average residential consumers at something roughly the same as a latte at Starbucks. That’s not inconsequential when factored over the population of Colorado Springs. Hundreds of thousands of coffee drinks amount to substantial money local coffee shops could use to hire dozens more baristas.
And not all who buy electricity are small residential users. Some large companies will see their annual electrical costs go up by as much as $17,000 as a direct result of the solar decision.
Atmel ranks among Utilities’ largest customers. Atmel executive Dan Malinaric told council members that the solar program will hurt his business. A few months ago, Malinaric explained, the company laid off 200 employees because of the weak economy. Thousands in higher electrical costs will mean Atmel and other employers have even less cash with which to pay employees.
City leaders will not move our city forward with foolhardy decisions like this, made at an expense of the hard-earned wages and profits of residents and businesses. The new council should try to fix it.