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Solar farm set to power 3,000 Colorado Springs-area homes

August 18, 2016 Updated: August 19, 2016 at 7:34 am
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Solar panels at the Clear Spring Ranch solar array site on Thursday, August 18, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

Acres of solar panels gleam sky blue in the sunlight as a smokestack towers incongruously above at the coal-fired Ray D. Nixon Power Plant south of Colorado Springs.

In October, the new Clear Spring Ranch Solar Array will start generating enough power to supply 3,000 homes - the first time Colorado Springs Utilities will provide solar energy directly to its ratepayers.

That means 10 megawatts of energy - nearly double that generated by the Air Force Academy solar farm - will be produced, avoiding about 18,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide that would have been emitted a year using fossil fuel power instead.

The 156-acre solar farm now under construction almost didn't happen, as Utilities board members argued in January about the cost. But the project was Utilities' last opportunity to seize triple renewable-energy credits from the state by producing such energy before Dec. 31.

Board members voted 5-3 for the solar farm. And despite the cost squabbles, a good argument on behalf of solar was made Thursday at Clear Spring Ranch by John Romero, general manager of energy acquisition, engineering and planning for Utilities.

With solar, Romero noted, "The fuel source is free. The installation is not."

By contrast, construction costs are known in advance for traditional energy sources, such as coal and natural gas. But the cost of generating that energy in 10 to 15 years is an unknown.

Still, energy diversity is important, Romero said. Coal has challenges, natural gas prices are volatile and, even with renewables, sometimes the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow.

"It's just like a stock portfolio: You want diversity," he said.

Utilities has a 25-year contract to buy the solar energy from a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources LLC, which is building Clear Spring and will own and operate it.

"It's such exciting technology," said project manager Warren Seese. "Even traditional coal people have a significant interest in solar."

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