Audits cast doubts on city's solar garden expansion

The Gazette editorial Published: May 13, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

The new City Council voted April 23 to halt the community solar garden expansion program, but the issue has not gone away. At the same time it suspended the program and cancelled the accompanying rate increase, the conservative majority on council pledged to re-examine the issue and come forward with a new proposal by August.

A look at two city auditor reports, which have gone largely unnoticed by media, more than justifies the council's decision to halt the expansion. They also serve as an object lesson in how not to structure a solar garden program.

The first of these reports, published in February, lists a number of serious problems with the pilot program, which the previous council initiated in 2011.

Observation one in the auditor's February report reveals that some SunShare solar customers failed to pay for their panels until long after Colorado Springs Utilities had paid incentives. The auditor writes: 'We were unable to test the developer's records to determine how much remained unpaid as of the incentive payment by Colorado Springs Utilities; however, we were made aware of several instances where customer payments were not received until 2012. '

Many people dislike the idea that Utilities ratepayers are subsidizing solar panels for those few who want to use them, but the reality is worse. Now it appears that in some cases, ratepayers are shouldering the entire burden, while SunShare customers are receiving rebates on their electricity bills without even making a contribution toward their solar panels - at least not on time.

The auditor's observation explains why he was unable to test SunShare's records to determine exactly how many solar customers have failed to make their payments: Utilities' contract with SunShare lacks a right-to-audit clause. And yet, as the auditor explains, 'In 2011, an incentive of $995,676 was paid under the Community Solar Garden Pilot Program relative to one 500 kilowatt garden. During 2012, there were two 500 kilowatt solar gardens under development and $1,038,308 of incentive funding was budgeted. ' It appears the previous council was handing out million-dollar checks with no right to verify how they were used.

We applaud the city's auditor for identifying these and other problems in the pilot program. We should also mention that the auditor's February report makes specific recommendations for fixing them in the expansion program. However, when the previous council passed the expansion program in April, the problems had not been fixed. The auditor's second report indicates, and Utilities staff has confirmed, that rules for the expansion program were still incomplete April 9, when the previous council voted to approve the rate increase to expand the expansion program.

Utilities staffers promise that new rules, incorporating all of the auditor's recommendations, would have been in place by the time the expansion program went into effect. Even so, a more responsible council would have fixed the problems before approving a rate increase to fund the expansion. Their failure to do so suggests a lack of due diligence and a rushed process.

The previous council wanted to pass the expansion before the new council took office, so it declared an emergency, altered the legislative process, and passed the measure after only one hearing instead of the normal two. New council member Joel Miller was right to criticize the process.

Before voting with the minority on the new council, council member Jill Gaebler said her colleagues should assume the previous council had done its due diligence.

The problems in the pilot program, coupled with the fact they remained unfixed in the expansion program, show the previous council was willing to spend promiscuously, with only the loosest oversight and without adequate respect for its solemn commitment to safeguard ratepayer funds. The pilot program left ratepayers all wet. The expansion was on track to do the same.

In light of the audit, we applaud Council President Keith King, President Pro Tem Merv Bennett, and council members Helen Collins, Joel Miller and Andy Pico for performing their due diligence and putting a stop to wayward solar expansion.

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