Grazing Yak Solar Project

Grazing Yak Solar Project near Calhan will produce 35 megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 13,000 homes a year.

Colorado Springs Utilities’ second major solar array has begun operations, bringing the city one step closer to completing a series of projects that will allow a fifth of its electrical generation to come from renewable sources.

The Grazing Yak Solar Project, made up of more than 119,000 panels on 278 acres near Calhan, came online late last month, Utilities announced on Monday.

The array will provide 35 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 13,000 homes a year. For the next 25 years, Utilities will purchase that power from a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, which owns and operates the project.

Another facility, the 500-acre Palmer Solar Project southeast of Colorado Springs, is expected to begin generating power early next year, adding another 60 megawatts of solar electricity to the city’s energy portfolio, said Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin.

And negotiations are ongoing for a third project that will produce 150 megawatts and include another 25 megawatts of battery storage. The Pike Solar Array will be located south of the city, though an exact location has yet to be determined, Benyamin said. Utilities’ deal with an operator to construct the array should be final within a month, and the entire project is slated for completion by the end of 2023.

When it’s done, more than 20% of Utilities’ energy portfolio will consist of renewable sources, including wind and hydropower.

Utilities is taking advantage of solar power as the price of materials for building arrays is relatively low, Benyamin said.

Plus, companies like NextEra can keep up-front costs minimal and claim renewable energy tax credits that municipal utilities can’t.

“We want to go from fossil fuel to efficiency and demand response and make sure that our resources are used wisely and also transition to cleaner generation sources,” Benyamin said. “Renewables come in as part of that. Storage is part of that.”

Until the Grazing Yak began operating, the city had one “universal scale” solar project producing energy for its customers. The 10-megawatt Clear Springs Ranch Solar Array is also owned and operated by a subsidiary of NextEra.

As companies and governments have assessed their roles in combating climate change, other power providers in the state have made ambitious pledges to use more renewable energy sources.

Colorado’s largest electricity provider, Xcel Energy, announced last December that it would supply zero-carbon electricity by 2050 to utility customers in the eight states it serves. By 2030, it hopes to slash its emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels.

The Platte River Power Authority, which provides powers to cities including Longmont and Fort Collins, has committed to a goal of 100 percent renewables by 2030.

Benyamin has said growing Utilities’ renewable energy portfolio could expedite the closure of downtown’s coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant. The plant is currently slated to shutter no later than 2035, although local activists have called for an earlier closure amid rising concerns about air quality and the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Utilities is studying closure dates as early as 2023 as part of its integrated resource plan, which will outline its best energy production options for the next 30 to 40 years. The plan is expected to be completed next August.

Benyamin has stressed the need for Utilities to find a reliable and affordable replacement power source before determining a closure date for Drake.

“We are not going to compromise reliability. That comes first,” he said.

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