Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

New council set to undo solar garden expansion

MONICA MENDOZA Updated: April 22, 2013 at 12:00 am

Just weeks after the former City Council voted to expand Colorado Springs Community Solar Garden, the new council is set to reverse course.

And in a surprise twist, new council president Keith King solicited council sponsors for the proposed resolution — a practice he said he intends to use routinely. All but two City Council members — Val Snider and Jan Martin — are listed as sponsors of the resolution to withdraw electric rate increases that would be used to expand solar gardens.

The resolution says the City Council supports the use of renewable energy but needs more time and information about the Solar Garden expansion. King said he called each City Council member to ask if they would sponsor the resolution. The move, he said, is in keeping with his plan to make the City Council act more like the state legislature.

“It shows general support with the concept,” King said.

Martin objected to the idea of resolution sponsors.

“It implies we’ve already made up our mind before there is public input,” she said.

King said the resolution is not scrapping renewable energy programs. Instead, he said, council needs more information about other cost-efficient ways to structure the program. He also said there should be a more competitive bid process, rather than the way the solar garden pilot program was expanded.

“There was a lack of information on the cost of subsidizing at 16 cents . . . there were other ways to do it more economically,” he said.

David Amster-Olzewski, president of SunShare, a community solar garden company, said there was an eight-month public process. All issues and costs were examined before the April 9 City Council vote that approved electric rate increases to expand a pilot project that created the area’s first community solar gardens at the Venetucci Farm in 2011, he said.

The gardens allow customers of Colorado Springs Utilities to buy or lease solar panels installed on a farm and get credit on their utility bills.

The pilot program provided a capacity of 2 megawatts of solar-generated power. The expansion would add 10 more megawatts by 2016, paid for by ratepayers — estimated at $22 million to $33.2 million over 20 years.

In estimates provided by the city auditor, residential customers could pay an average of $2.91 to $4.63 more a year to pay for the solar garden program, depending on how much utility bills go up.

If the council votes to rescind the changes it made to the electric rates, it would send an anti-business message to all renewable energy companies, Amster-Olszewski said. Colorado Springs, he said, is the first city to start a solar garden. Now, 14 states have passed legislation that allows the building of solar gardens.

“Businesses have a lot of opportunity and there are lot of places businesses can go to be successful,” he said. “Before they withdraw this, they need to say let’s learn and then decide. Don’t kill it first and then ask questions. That is not a friendly way of doing business.”

Martin objected Monday during the informal council meeting to changes made in the proposed resolution. She said she received the third version of the resolution on Monday, which was different from the version published on the city’s website.

“We worked for a year and half on this program,” Martin said. “We believed that it was important to get it approved. Now at the very first meeting, with no input from the public, council is prepared to rescind.”

Added to the resolution on Monday was a call for a public discussion and information gathering meeting with interested community members within 60 days of the resolution.

Amster-Olszewski said when the Colorado Springs Utilities Board proposes changed to rates, it requires 30-day notice to rate payers.

“I don’t even know if this is legal,” he said.

City Council may find community support, however, if it votes to rescind the program. Earlier this month local business leaders said that there would be no way to recover the cost increases, especially for large industrial customers. And some worried that rate hikes to expand solar gardens would stymie economic development.

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