Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS: City's solar panels

RICHARD SKORMAN and DAN AJAMIAN Updated: April 22, 2013 at 12:00 am

In a recent editorial, The Gazette stated that the council made a “foolhardy investment in solar at ratepayers’ expense,” complaining that Community Solar Garden program burdens ratepayers with a new “$22 million-dollar subsidy.” Here’s why that could be considered a “foolhardy” conclusion. The “$22 million” figure assumes that the cost to replace the energy generated by solar is only “2.5 cents” a kilowatt hour (kWh) — today’s cost of just the fuel for our two coal-fired power plants. 

Let’s not even discuss what ratepayers paid to build, maintain, upgrade and put pollution controls on our current power plants. Let’s focus on the next 25 years — the warranty for solar panels. The oft-quoted “$22 million subsidy” figure doesn’t assume there will be additional operation costs like pollution controls requirements over the next several decades. It doesn’t assume that the cost of coal will increase. It doesn’t assume there will be new federal regulations on carbon emissions now that the Supreme Court has allowed the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant. Most importantly, it doesn’t take into account that we will have to build new power generation to keep up with demand in 15-20 years. All these factors mean that the real cost of replacement power will be higher than 2.5 cents/kWh.

 Austin Energy, where electric rates are similar to ours, completed a five-year study and determined that their “true replacement value” for solar energy is 12.8 cents/kWh (http://bit.ly/ZCl9wF). The study concluded that a small rebate subsidy today will decrease their rates in the near future. The principles behind Austin’s calculations are simple:

• Because the fuel is free, solar protects against rising costs of coal and gas.

• Solar is built near the places where people use the energy, so transmission costs are inexpensive or nonexistent.

• Solar provides electricity during the day when energy demand is highest.  You can’t shut down a coal-fired power plant at night, so much of that energy is wasted.

• Solar can be added incrementally as demand increases.

• Solar panels are becoming significantly cheaper.

• Solar has ratepayer partners adding an extra two and a half dollars for every dollar their utility spends.

The Gazette also recently editorialized against solar because of the toxic waste and carbon footprint generated from the production of solar panels in California. The Community Solar projects do not use panels made with cadmium telluride that were mentioned. And the fact that California solar production had a large carbon footprint because it was powered by coal-fired power plants and byproducts were transported in gas-guzzling trucks makes a case for more renewable energy and efficient trucks. It might be “foolhardy” to compare the carbon footprint of one-time solar panel production to 25 years of coal, oil, gas production, transportation and burning or the building of new, centralized power-plants. 

As Colorado Springs grows, we will need more energy. Let’s make the investment in renewable energy for ratepayers in the future.

Richard Skorman is a former City Council member. With his wife, Patricia, he owns and operates Poor Richard’s Downtown, which has 117 solar panels on its roof.


 

By Dan Ajamian

Last month, City Council candidate Bob Kinsey said he’d like to look down from the top of Pikes Peak and see rolling fields of solar panels. In a city with over 300 days of sunshine a year, it makes sense to take advantage of this renewable energy. If only it were that simple.

City Council’s recent vote to subsidize solar gardens will cost Colorado Springs citizens $20 million to $30 million, expanding the current pilot program sixfold. Under the proposed program, however, solar power would provide less than half of one percent of the total energy used by electric customers.

Talk about bang for your buck.

What’s even more absurd about this whole initiative, however, is that by simply waiting a few years, we could have the same opportunities for community solar gardens without a rate hike.

Because of the decreasing price of solar panels, community solar gardens “will be cost-competitive within four to five years without rebates and tax credits,” according to David Amster-Olszewski, the founder of SunShare, in a 2011 interview.

Colorado Springs Utilities General Manager John Romero agrees. “The long-term goal for solar is to completely eliminate the subsidy. Given the significant drop in solar prices from year-to-year, it may be possible to eliminate the subsidy in three to four years.”

This leaves City Council with a simple choice: either subsidize solar power now at a cost of up to
$30 million, or wait four years until solar energy is efficient enough not to require higher rates.

“But what’s the big deal? This will only cost the average household three to five dollars a year,” argue proponents of the measure. You know what would also cost the average household three to five dollars a year? Getting every homeless person in El Paso County off the streets for the next five years.

Nobody is suggesting we use Utilities money for core services, but imagine what $30 million could accomplish if we paid it in taxes to the city instead of in rates to Utilities. It could help address the Waldo Canyon burn scar, stormwater management, city pensions, and downtown development. It could supplement salaries for our local policemen and firefighters. It could provide Sunday bus service.

The good news is it’s not up to five elected officials to decide whether Colorado Springs is pro-solar. Residents and local businesses have made that decision for themselves, and we have made great strides.

Three Colorado-based community solar gardens have entered the Colorado Springs market in the last two years, removing many barriers to entry and making investing in solar energy easy for homeowners and renters alike. Thousands have joined the solar movement, and many more are in line.

This isn’t a question of whether we want solar energy, but when. We can implement solar full-scale now at the cost of $20 million to $30 million, or wait a couple of years and not pay a dime in ratepayer funds.

This isn’t that complicated. New City Council members, you know what to do.

Dan Ajamian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. He is a John Jay Fellow and lives in Colorado Springs.

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