Tuesday, April 20, 2010

San Luis Valley Farmers Want Solar Power

The following is a repost from the Pueblo Chieftain story by Matt Hildner, Saturday, March 6, 2010

Finding a way to grow solar panels alongside fields of alfalfa, potatoes and barley in the San Luis Valley has not been easy.

The valley's farmers are looking toward an upcoming decision by the state Public Utilities Commission on Xcel Energy rates which they hope will provide relief to six farmers who installed panels to partially power their irrigation sprinklers in 2007.

Should that rate case fail, another group is seeking funding from the Colorado Department of Agriculture to study an economic model they hope will lead to more widespread use. The valley's roughly 6,000 irrigation wells are an inviting target — if the economics can be made to work — since they make up the area's biggest demand for electricity.

Wayne Caldwell, chief financial officer for the Monte Vista Cooperative, hopes small but widespread solar development on the valley's farms would also mean more benefits to the local economy. He contrasts that scenario with current plans for utility-scale plants that would ship their power out of the valley and be built by outside companies. "A lot of the economic benefit just ships out of the valley," he said.

From the Xcel rate case the farmers are trying to wring $1,500 to $2,000 in annual savings to put toward insurance, maintenance, repairs and the cost of replacing inverters. The group installed 10-kilowatt systems, each costing roughly $90,000. During growing season, the panels partially power irrigation systems. In the off-season the power goes back to Xcel.

While the system and installation costs were subsidized heavily by federal grants and an Xcel rebate, the rate structure is not what they expected based on information from the company, Caldwell said. Under the current rate structure the farmers argue they're not getting an equitable payoff in the off-season, be it in the form of credit or in banking power for the irrigation season. "We're just giving power to Xcel, is how we're feeling," said Paul New, whose farm near Mosca was one of the original six to install solar panels.

The most workable of the proposals currently before the commission would still result in a 34.8 percent increase on their bills. But Caldwell said that package might work if the utilities commission would attach an energy credit of between $600 to $1,200 that can be applied to the the demand portion of the bill. "If we can just get to that point, we might be able to make this work," Caldwell said. Charles Hollum, an attorney working with the valley farmers in the rate case, said the decision could come in as early as two weeks.

A second track in the effort to open up distributed generation solar could come from a small group of farmers in Conejos County and ag-related businesses who are applying for a grant from the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The group wants to fund a feasibility study that would pinpoint a business model that would work for other groups of farmers around the valley. It would also examine where a project can be located without requiring a substation upgrade.