Saturday, June 19, 2010

Xcel and TriState: Honor the San Luis Valley's Solar Legacy

Here's Ceal's High Country News - Writers on the Range Essay, under the original title.

June 17, 2010

Before utility executives and solar-energy prospectors discovered the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, it was mostly known for its potatoes, Buddhist hermitages and scrappy water wars. Now our high-desert rift valley is home to a clash between two competing visions for Colorado's renewable energy future.

As utilities and their regulators argue over who is to blame for lagging renewable energy portfolios, a solution can be found right where I live. The San Luis Valley once again points the way towards solar innovation. When the first energy crisis shook the country in the 1970s, back-to-the-land visionaries fired up about solar electricity flocked to the valley, where cheap land, lax building codes and high-altitude sunny skies offered the perfect solar playing field.

Among them was Marianne North, the daughter of J.K. Ramstetter, an early solar energy inventor from Golden, Colo. Within a decade, North and her small band of solar pioneers had installed over 1,000 solar systems. The many versions including passive, active or hybrid, connected to the electric grid or not, and both air and water-cooled, were all based in the small communities of San Luis, Alamosa and Crestone.

The Solar Energy Research Institute  -- now the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colo. -- credited the San Luis Valley back then with inspiring "an explosion in solar energy resulting in perhaps the highest per capita concentration of solar installations in the country."  Energy sovereignty was a shared goal, driven by an ethos of self-reliance common among the offspring of Spanish and Anglo settlers who colonized this remote Shangri–la in the 1800s.

Over time, solar experiments in the valley grew bigger, bolder and more sophisticated. When the 8 megawatt (MW) SunEdison plant went online in April 2007, the valley became home to one of the largest solar photovoltaic farms in the country. Three years later, the valley is close to generating a whopping 63 megawatts of distributed solar electricity, enough to power 100 percent of the average electricity needs of 50,000 people living on its widely dispersed farms, ranches and small towns. To many of us living here, the valley is doing everything right to become the first grid-supported energy-independent region in the nation.

But not if the utility industry has its way.

One of the country's major electricity suppliers, Xcel Energy, along with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, wants to turn this mosaic of wetlands, sand dunes and Spanish Colonial-era rural farmlands into a solar-energy sacrifice zone. Xcel, which brings power to eight states over 17,335 miles of power lines, thinks big when it comes to solar. Solar power companies are proposing giant collector fields -- as big as 15 miles square -- to fuel its power plants and hook onto the grid. This is an industrial model that's the antithesis of the small-scale, local solar power envisioned by the valley's first energy innovators.

Energy prophet Amory Lovins calls central energy generation the "Victorian steam locomotives" of the new millennium. Here in the San Luis Valley, we propose something better: to distribute community-based power from the sun, with no new powerlines chewing up the landscape. Solar photovoltaics, microturbines, fuel cells and other decentralized clean energy technologies are now evolving faster than you can Google "free the grid."  Collectively, these new micro-grid tools are rendering the energy sovereignty dream a reality.  As prices plummet, slapping solar panels on our sun-baked urban rooftops, parking lots, center pivot corners and other unused lands at the point where the energy is used, is now the cheapest, fastest, smartest and greenest path to a renewable energy future.

But Xcel Energy and Tri-State do not share this vision. Instead, they want to rip a 95-mile, $200 million high-voltage transmission line through the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains to siphon energy generated from the valley's sunshine to Front Range "energy markets," hundreds of miles away.

To an eclectic coalition of solar devotees, farmers, ranchers, scientists, environmentalists, doctors, artists and retirees, this is nothing less than an invasion of solar industrialists. Our goal is to stop the transmission line by banding together: The coalition calls itself the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance. What we support is a state-of-the-art diversified microgrid system that empowers communities within the valley and across the state to generate their own power on the existing grid.

We're working to create a model of sustainability and self-reliance that can inspire other rural communities. We refuse to give that up to become just another example of an energy sacrifice zone.

Ceal Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a biologist, sustainability consultant and member of the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance in Saguache, Colorado.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nevada Does it Right: small-scale urban solar

Of course we'll still work to see community-based solar development in the San Luis Valley that builds local energy security and fortifies our economy,  but here is a model for how Colorado can add hundreds of MW to its solar generation portfolio without costly and destructive new transmission.

What's more, an initiative like this would create thousands of jobs and save the State millions in utility costs starting immediately.  According to Environment Colorado's Investing in the Sun report, installation of just 1,000 MW of distributed solar generation would create over 7,400 construction jobs and 217 permanent O&M jobs by 2020 and generate almost $6.5 Billion in economic activity.

Individual commercial PV installations (400 kW and greater) are being built under the California Solar Initiative at less than $5/Wac.  RETI estimates the cost of central station solar thermal at ~$5.50/Wac.  Distributed PV installations 1/500th to 1/1000th the size of a typical solar thermal plant costs less to build than an industrial scale plant.  Factor in the cost and line losses of long-distance transmission, environmental and other impacts and its clear - point of use distributed generation is the most sensible approach to solar energy development.

What are we waiting for?

State promoting small-scale urban solar development

Nevada wants to aggressively add solar panels, like these at Southern Nevada’s main water treatment plant, to its buildings and installations.

By Stephanie Tavares (reprinted from the Las Vegas Sun)

Friday, June 11, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.

Even though Nevada’s coffers are nearly empty, that shouldn’t be an obstacle to a new tack to grow the state’s solar energy industry.

Gov. Jim Gibbons last week announced the plan for dozens of new small-scale solar installations on state property.

The beauty of the plan is that the state won’t pay for the projects. Instead, developers will cover the cost through a third-party ownership or lease-to-own-style deal, and it should also provide a spark for the local economy.

It should be a step toward making Nevada a leader in solar development and should “save taxpayers millions of dollars in utility costs,” Gibbons said.

The project is the brainchild of state energy Director Jim Groth, who oversaw the development of a similar, but much smaller, effort at the Nevada Army and Air National Guard headquarters in Carson City. The announcement was applauded by members of the renewable energy industry and environmentalists who said it’s a smart move.

“We’re very pleased to see a good idea come out of this administration’s energy office,” Nevada Conservation League spokesman Scot Rutledge says.

The technology and type of project — small-scale urban solar development called distributed generation — are popular with environmentalists because they affect the environment less than the large scale solar projects proposed for swaths of Southern Nevada desert.

These developments would be on previously disturbed land — whether parking lots, rooftops or vacant urban parcels. And because the electricity would be used on-site, there would be no need to build transmission lines.

That means no dead bunnies, relocated tortoises or decimated desert landscapes.

It also reduces the need for NV Energy to burn natural gas and coal in its power plants, and thus helps clean the air and fight climate change.

“Distributed generation is an efficient way to address energy issues right now, not five or more years from now when the grid is up to par,” says Herve Mazzocco, a renewable energy consultant with RA Energie. “It also has a lower carbon footprint, there are no line losses, nor a need for large and expensive grid storage solutions for demand control.”

By June 28 the state intends to request proposals from developers, contractors and installers interested in serving as a general contractor for numerous solar photovoltaic projects across the state.

The state has identified about 30 sites where it would like to see solar panels. Many are parking lots, where the installations would provide both electricity and shaded parking for employees and visitors, similar to Springs Preserve’s.

More sites could be added in the coming weeks as state agencies identify other suitable land suitable, Groth says. “We’ll take as many state agencies as have a desire to join on,” he says.

Construction would occur over the next couple of years, and the right deal could save the state millions of dollars in energy costs, pump hundreds of millions of investment dollars into the economy and put hundreds of Nevadans to work.

It’s the type of economic diversification the state has been seeking for years and can start faster than the large-scale solar energy export plants planned for rural deserts, Mazzocco says.

“Most of the large solar farms are developed by out-of-state or even foreign corporations,” he says. “These smaller systems give the opportunity to Nevada-based companies to participate in the state’s energy strategy. This is good for the local economy.”

The plan would involve zero upfront cost to Nevada. The contractor would finance the project and be paid back over many years through a per-kilowatt hour fee. The upfront costs could be lowered by economies of scale as well as state SolarGenerations incentives, federal tax credits, net metering and the potential to sell renewable energy credits.

These credits represent the environmental benefits of a given renewable energy project and in many cases can be sold to companies that want to lower their carbon footprints without buying solar arrays.

The installation of solar panels could be a common sight in Nevada if contractors buy into the state's plan.

“The total (fiscal and tax) benefits go to the vendor,” Groth says. “We want to do the best job we can to entice the bidder to submit a proposal.”

This type of deal is rare in Nevada but is popular in California, where large corporations, small businesses and homeowners are signing on to third-party ownership deals similar to the one proposed by the state.

Some energy consultants wonder if Nevada is ready for this. Companies are interested in bringing third-party ownership to customers here, but are still unsure if the economics pencil out.

“For these types of deals to happen I believe that we need to develop a better environment for the trading of renewable energy credits, which ultimately can make or break such arrangements,” Mazzocco says. “Unfortunately, even after the federal tax credit, the cost of electricity alone does not suffice to satisfy the financing entities return-on-investment goals.”

In Arizona, for example, the main utility Arizona Power Service has set up renewable energy credit-only contracts independent of the purchase of the electricity. Mazzocco says these are attractive for small-scale renewable energy developers because it creates a secondary income stream for their products.

Nevada law requires that the renewable energy credits and the electricity stay together. So if a project is funded in part by NV Energy’s SolarGenerations incentive program, the owner cannot sell the renewable energy credits. NV Energy gets to count the project toward its renewable energy goals.

Without separating the credits from the energy, it could be hard for developers and contractors to make the deal pencil out, Mazzocco said.

Groth says it can be done, on private or public property, and that the state will lead the way.

“We proved at the National Guard that there were enough tax credits and things out there to make a deal with us financially viable,” he says. “And there’s no lack of interest in distributed generation solar energy in this state.”

Saturday, June 5, 2010

4 Myths on Solar Energy and the San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley has been much in the news lately, with some leading stories coming from The New York Times, Going Solar Is Harder Than It Looks, a Valley Finds and the Denver Post, Xcel seeks eased solar requirement amid dispute over transmission.

Although there are signs that other perspectives and voices are seeping into the media (the Pueblo Chieftain: Xcel to cut solar project by half and the Valley Courier: Xcel Energy files to reduce Colorado's solar projects are welcome exceptions), for the most part the story goes like this....

1) In Colorado, the sun only shines in the San Luis Valley;

2) Solar energy resources can't be developed in Colorado without a new high-voltage transmission line into the San Luis Valley;

3) The SoCo line is being challenged solely by Louis Bacon, the billionaire owner of Trinchera Ranch, who doesn't want his private property spoiled by an ugly and destructive transmission line;

4) A new transmission line is critical for the Valley's energy security and future economic growth.

Truth or myth?

MYTH #1: In Colorado, the Sun Only Shines in the San Luis Valley. The NREL Concentrating Solar Power map on the right is frequently referred to by industry, utilities and government.  This map implies that the SLV has wildly superior solar insolation values, so much so that generating solar energy from any place else in the state isn't even worth considering.

The map below is a more realistic view of Colorado's solar insolation values relative to other states.  The difference between solar generation values in the SLV and, say, Denver is far less dramatic, at ~ 10-15%.  What neither map shows, is that the marginal advantage of generating solar energy in the San Luis Valley is effectively canceled out by the estimated 7.5-12% line losses incurred from transporting electricity over long distances.

Transmission upgrades are needed to carry large amounts of solar generated electricity from remote areas like the San Luis Valley that currently lack large export transmission capacity.  According to Pacific Gas and Electric Company (Ng, 2009) the average cost of constructing new transmission lines is $1.5M/per mile.

When line losses and the cost of long-distance transmission are factored in, point of use generation is clearly the more economical choice for Coloradans.  

Urban areas offer a vast landscape for solar generation.  A recent Navigant study found over 35,000-acres of suitable residential and commercial rooftop in Colorado's urban areas.  This does not include the tens of thousands (or more!) more acres of parking lots, road corridors, brownfields and urban "sol-estate" now baking in the sun.

Al Weinrub, Community Power

In a recent article, entitled "Busting 4 Myths About Solar PV vs Concentrating Solar Power", John Farrell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, lays to rest the question of which is cheaper (see chart below).  Production costs for solar PV have fallen dramatically in the past two years.  When transmission costs and inefficiencies are factored in, there is no question that rooftop PV is the most economical solar alternative (also see Table 7 from Al Weinrubs report, Community Power, upper right).

John Ferrell, Busting 4 Myths About Solar PV vs CSP, 2011
Some will still argue that distributed generation can't scale up fast enough. Germany generates more than half of the worlds solar energy despite its relatively low solar insolation values (see purple inset in above map).  The high latitude county, not much bigger than Colorado, added over 8 Gigawatts of solar in 2010 alone compared to less than 1 Gigawatt of installed solar in the entire US in the same timeframe. 

Germany, and a growing number of counties with Feed-in tariffs, have proven, beyond a shadow of doubt, that distributed solar can scale up rapidly and create more quality, green jobs without the added cost of new transmission.

The beauty of solar is its ubiquity.  All of Colorado is blessed with an average of 5.5 hours of solar energy, on average, 300 days a year.  Why are we not developing our solar resources as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible? 

Conclusion:  All of Colorado has excellent solar resources.  While transmission costs and losses cancel out any advantage of generating solar energy in the San Luis Valley, perverse policy incentives continue to direct industry and utilities toward costly, destructive and unpopular remote centralized solar.  

MYTH #2: Solar energy resources cannot be developed in Colorado without a new high-voltage transmission line.   This is a myth that has been widely perpetuated by the utility industry and reinforced by Xcels' recent decision to reduce the solar energy component of its 2007 Resource Plan.  The implication is that opposition to the SoCo transmission line is blocking Xcel's ability to develop solar resources as "mandated by the people of Colorado". 

Xcel's own study suggests that renewable energy resources are integrated more effectively when distributed geographically and that Pueblo and Denver both possess good solar resources.  Could it be that Xcel wants the new transmission line more than it wants solar energy for its RES portfolio? (If you can't access this pdf, email info@slvrenewable to request a copy of the report).

Recent legislation that guarantees 100% upfront cost recovery and a new report by transmission expert J. Firooze, Transmission in Short Supply or Do IOU's Want More Profits? suggests that the Big Solar - Transmission Mission is founded more on badly designed policy incentives than any real transmission shortage or solar insolation advantage.

Firooze concludes that we are "wasting millions of dollars on transmission, consumer monies that would be more productively spent on developing and connecting the renewable resources themselves".

Net-metering, Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) and PACE financing are proven policy incentives that would effectively fast-track point of use solar energy development in every corner of our sunny state using the existing transmission infrastructure. 

According to PUC testimony, an upgrade of the existing 3 transmission lines, would allow the San Luis Valley to export up to 500 MW - ample room for a robust commercial export market that wouldn't turn the valley into an industrial solar sacrifice zone.

Colorado’s new Renewable Energy Standard very wisely includes a 3% cutout for distributed solar generation.   It's a good start that will help prove the effectiveness of DG while providing a much needed shot in the arm for our ailing jobs economy.

Because utilities are generally opposed to policies that level the playing field - the public will need to take the lead in demanding policy incentives for renewable energy generation across residential, commercial, community and agricultural sectors.

Conclusion: With the right policy incentives, Colorado can develop its considerable solar energy potential without costly new transmission and turning the San Luis Valley into a solar energy sacrifice zone. An additional perk is that local solar energy generation creates more jobs and puts more dollars on Main Street.  See COMMUNITY POWER, the landmark new report by the Clean Energy Alliance.

MYTH #3: Trinchera Ranch is alone in questioning the need for the SoCo transmission line into the San Luis Valley.

While media has mostly focus on the opposition of Louis Bacon and Trinchera Ranch to the SoCo transmission line, the reality is that growing numbers of citizens throughout Colorado oppose a costly and unnecessary line through one of Colorado's remaining wild and open spaces. 

News reports and editorials, standing room only meetings, a constant stream of letters and comments opposing the SoCo transmission line and solar industrialization in the San Luis Valley indicate broad and growing concern from a diversity of concerned stakeholders and communities.  SLVRCA was founded in 2009 for the purpose of developing alternatives to solar industrialization that honor the Valley's history, landscapes and rural, sense of place values.  In little over a year, thousands have joined our growing network.

Until recently, local opposition has been largely ignored by the media. The first solar symposium held in Hospice del Valle, Alamosa in early 2009 drew a diverse, standing room only crowd that included many of the Valley's farmers and ranchers - yet it was not reported in the media.  Half a dozen Energy Town Hall meetings held by Senator Gail Schwartz the following spring also drew strong interest from citizens around the Valley.    

Tessera Solar 1041 application: over 866 comments from 102 individuals were received in the first few months leading up to the preliminary application (see comments here).  Two public hearings held at the Saguache County courthouse were filled to standing-room only. All but a few people testified against the massive industrial project.   In a few short weeks in 2010, over 500 residents of Saguache County signed a petition urging the County Commissioners to deny approval of Tessera's poorly conceived industrial power plant.

SoCo Transmission line - PUC proceedings: 400 individuals, 12 businesses and 9 organizations filed comments in the first 30-days of TriState's public scoping.  In a surprise brief reopening for public comments in July, 168 comments were filed in less than 36 hours, with 95% opposed to the new line (see comments here).

Rural Utility Service: over 500 comment letters were received by the RUS during the August 2009 public scoping period (see comments here).  RUS is expected to hold a new scoping period this summer to allow public input from parties who did not get their concerns filed two years ago.

In 2010,  Solar Done Right, a regional coalition of public land activists, solar power and electrical engineering experts and biologists has emerged out of concern for the rush to develop our nations few remaining wildlands for industrial solar energy.  SDR has come together to urge government, utilities, the mainstream environmental movement and the public to abandon this destructive path, and to work toward generating the power we need in the built environment.'

Furthermore, people from all walks of life in communities around Colorado, and the nation, are beginning to understand the reduced cost and increased economic benefits of local clean energy. 

Conclusion: a growing number of diverse San Luis Valley stakeholders are concerned and question the need for the SoCo transmission line or the massive solar industrialization of the San Luis Valley that it would usher in - yet the media has barely caught on to this rising grassroots phenomenon.  

MYTH #4: San Luis Valley farmers and residents are at risk - a new transmission line is critical for the Valley's energy security and future economic growth.

The San Luis Valley has a long history of self-reliance and renewable energy innovation.  In the early 1980's the Solar Energy Research Institute  -- now the nations premier think tank, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo. -- credited the San Luis Valley with "inspiring an explosion in solar energy resulting in perhaps the highest per capita concentration of solar installations in the country." Once current contracts are complete, the SLV will generate almost 90 MW (well over 100% of its daytime electricity needs) of local distributed solar energy generation.

With a diversity of renewable energy resources at our disposal (solar, microhydro, geothermal, biofuels as well as storage), the Valley is perfectly situated to become the nations first grid-supported microgrid, or more accurately a system of self-sufficient energy "islands" tied together (and to the outside world) through the existing transmission infrastructure.

Developing diverse energy resources, first for local use, then as a new income stream for farmers and ranchers, is more in keeping with decentralized energy technology and market trends.

Localized energy can be integrated into the cultural and historical fabric of the San Luis Valley, rather than bulldozing the rural sense of place that draws, and keeps people coming back, to this unique place.

One idea gaining popularity among valley farmers is to install solar PV on the more than 120,000-acres of crop circle corners.  Numerous installations could offset irrigation energy loads and provide an income stream to hundreds of farmers during the off season.  The Valley's centennial ranch community is gaining an interest in installing smaller scale (< 5MW) distributed solar and microhydro installations on their less productive rangelands and irrigation canals. 

Unfortunately,  Xcel Energy imposed hefty penalties on SLV farmers who participated in a solar PV pilot project.  Until policy barriers are overcome, progress with local generation will be an uphill climb.    Nevertheless, numerous efforts are underway.  Interest in developing a collaborative vision and road map for community power is growing and could coalesce in the very near future.