Colorado Springs City Council finds compromise, expands solar gardens
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Jon Vanderwall with RBI Solar works to install one of 2,500 solar panels Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at SunShare's new community solar garden under construction on property owned by Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. Any Colorado Springs Utilities customer is eligible to reserve panels through SunShare for a one-time payment of $550 per solar panel and SunShare expects a panel to save the average ratepayer $1,100 over 20 years. The church and SunShare worked together to trade $1 million in solar power over 50 years in return for the use of land owned by the church. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

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It has been 10 months since the Colorado Springs City Council began discussing the expansion of the city's solar garden pilot program.

Since then, the council approved an expansion of the program by 10 megawatts, six new council members were elected, and the new council promptly scrapped the expansion program and started over.

Now, it seems there has been a compromise. The council will expand the solar garden program, but only a little and only for one year.

The council, in a 6-3 vote Tuesday, gave the nod to expand the solar garden program by 2 megawatts of energy. Under the expanded program, the maximum incentive would be 13 cents per kilowatt hour to customers who buy the panels.

The new program would cost about $4.9 million over 20 years instead of the original $22 million. The new cost equates, on average, to 50 cents a year for utility customers.

Council member Andy Pico voted for the expansion but was uneasy that all utility users would see an increase in their bills.

"I really don't like that," he said.

But the city needs to hedge its bet against future state mandates to grow renewable energy portfolios, he said, and a solar garden program would help meet those mandates.

"And when we rescinded the other program, we made a promise that we would come back with something," he said.

Renewable energy is a topic that raises the emotional level in City Hall. Some residents spoke during a public hearing Tuesday about the need to be good stewards of the Earth and its resources. Others spoke about how some residents can't afford an increase in their energy bills.

Council member Helen Collins said she has read many articles of failed businesses trying to get in on the renewable energy industry and she does not want the city tangled in private business. Collins and council members Joel Miller and Keith King voted against the solar garden expansion.

"Solar panels are great, but I don't think they should be subsidized by the citizens of Colorado Springs," she said.

Colorado Springs launched its community solar garden pilot program in September 2011. Under the program, utility users can buy solar panels in solar gardens and transfer energy into the electric system. About 400 households subscribe to the program.

Council member Jan Martin has been passionate about the solar garden program and was visibly angered when the president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Business Alliance, Joe Raso, asked the council to put off the expansion and instead define its entire renewable energy program goals, which may or may not include solar energy.

"I had high hopes for the new business alliance," Martin said directly speaking to Raso. "I anticipated big ideas. You have shown me that you and your organization are content to live in the past."

Raso, who worked with wind energy businesses in Iowa, said the business alliance is not against renewable energy programs. But he said the city should not approve its renewable energy program piecemeal.

The expansion calls for putting out a request for proposal to solicit developers to build the solar gardens. The developer must already be in the solar garden business and show a track record of selling out the panels.

The council is expected to make a final decision on the details of the program and structure of the request for proposal at its Aug. 27 meeting. If all that is approved, the council would expect the solar garden to be operational within a year.

Colorado Springs resident Bob Kinsey said he owns a 900-square-foot house and 20 solar panels. He said the city needs radical change of its energy programs and should follow other cities that have mandated renewable energy be part of all new buildings. But he called the 2 megawatt expansion a good baby step.

"Colorado Springs Utilities does not have to purchase one grain of coal to supply my electricity," he said. "And I am feeding electricity back into the system."

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