Colorado College's plan for its own solar array goes dark, triggering student protest 


When students showed up bright and early at a Colorado Springs Utilities facility on April 11, they had reason to feel angry and betrayed.

Because of the stance the city took on Colorado College's proposal to build its own 2-megawatt solar array, not only did the college lose out on the project, but its plan to make the campus carbon-neutral by 2020 is now in jeopardy, says campus energy manager Mark Ferguson.

"We want a solar array. Make it happen today," the students chanted outside Utilities' Leon Young Service Center on Hancock Expressway. "Give us our renewables. Solar power is doable."

Utilities says delivering renewable power to its roughly 214,600 electric customers is a little more complicated than simply replacing its coal power plants with windmills and solar panels. But until Utilities adopts a more renewable-friendly outlook on solar power, those in the city's service area who want their power from the sun are pretty much left in the cold, Colorado College officials say.

"We can only buy electricity from Utilities," Ferguson says. "But the amount we need [from renewable sources] is not available to us. So there's a demand for a product, but there's no product." He adds that since Utilities controls the solar business, "it's hurting economic development of renewables in our area."

Smaller footprint

In 2008, students petitioned the school's board of trustees to achieve carbon neutrality on campus by 2020. Trustees adopted that goal in 2009, and in 2012 the school hired Ferguson full-time to oversee the effort.

A few buildings at the college are now powered by solar panels, and a program is underway to advance conservation in order to reduce the campus' power demands, Ferguson says. In addition, the school bought into both solar gardens built in Colorado Springs by SunShare, a firm started by CC alum David Amster-Olszewski ("Sunblock for SunShare," cover story, Aug. 7, 2013).

But the college needs a major renewable power supply to reach its goals. So in early 2013, CC officials met with Utilities to discuss building a 2-megawatt solar array, which would provide 35 percent of the campus's electricity needs, Ferguson says.

Things seemed to be moving along, he says, so the proposal was presented to CC trustees in May 2013. The trustees then set aside $6 million in July for the project, provided the array could be installed and running within 18 months.

The going reimbursement rate for customers who invest in solar power had been almost 8 cents per kilowatt hour. The rate dropped to 5.99 cents last summer and further dropped to 5.61 in January, Ferguson says, but college officials remained hopeful they could make it work.

The college had first identified a parcel at Powers Boulevard and Airport Road for the array, but the city's development fees and drainage requirements came to $1 million, Ferguson says, which made the project unfeasible. Not finding another suitable parcel, the college asked for Utilities' help and began talks about using 17 acres at Clear Spring Ranch, a city-owned compound about 10 miles south of the city that contains coal-fired Ray Nixon Power Plant, natural gas-fired Front Range Power Plant, sludge disposal and other operations.

But in January, Utilities sent the college its proposed contracts, and they made the project unworkable. Not only had the kilowatt hour rate of reimbursement for solar power dropped further, but the lease would be revocable, meaning the city at any time during the 20-year term could give the college 60 days' notice to move the array, Ferguson says.

"That's not enough time to move a solar array," Ferguson says. "To put that much money into a site and have someone call you up and say, 'We need the property back' — a financial institution wouldn't loan you money on a deal like that. So why would you expect the college to back that?"

Trustees have since pulled the plug on the $6 million, so the project appears dead for now. It's disappointing, says Ferguson, especially considering that the array could save Utilities money during peak times when the city must buy power from other providers at a premium.

Still open

John Romero, Utilities' manager of acquisition, engineering and planning, says the city is still interested in partnering with CC.

"There are areas at Clear Spring Ranch already designated for renewable energy," Romero says via email, "so Utilities is very interested in pursuing renewable energy partnerships with customers like Colorado College. If we cannot make the Clear Spring Ranch location work, Utilities will work with CC to build at a different location."

Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman says the city is committed to achieving its self-imposed goal of having 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2020. Today, only 3 percent of Utilities' generation capacity comes from renewables, mostly hydro, although 10 percent of the energy Utilities uses comes from renewables thanks to purchase agreements.

As proof of commitment, Utilities officials point to the city's early entrance into the community solar gardening movement. A 2011 pilot program allowed customers to buy solar panels in a developer-built solar array and get credit on their bills for the power they produce.

But last year, the program was curtailed from 10 megawatts to 2 megawatts, and the reimbursement rate cut significantly, when a majority of City Council, which doubles as the Utilities Board, decided it wasn't fair to make ratepayers subsidize solar users.

Even if the city wanted to abandon dirty fuels like coal, it couldn't do so quickly without hiking electric rates significantly. And its customers have repeatedly told Utilities in surveys that price is among their top priorities.

As Grossman notes, "While the cost of renewable energy is coming down, wind and solar power continue to be more expensive than fossil fuels. The intermittent nature of wind and solar energy is also a challenge for utilities in regard to reliability."

City Councilor Andy Pico is more blunt. "We're not closed off to renewables," he says. "But right now, renewables can't deliver when we turn on the switch. The price would be about double for natural gas and double again for solar, or four times what we're charging for rates [now] if we went to solar and wind, and we wouldn't have power half the time."

No Plan B

Colorado College has come a long way since it declared its carbon-neutral goal. According to its 2013 energy report, the school has avoided having to pay $2.1 million on utilities due to its investment in solar power and other power reduction steps in five years. But Ian Johnson, CC's sustainability manager, says the 2-megawatt solar array was key.

"Without that or a very large project in the near term," he says, "we're going to have to think of other ways to reach that goal in six years. We're under the gun."

Ferguson says the college hopes to find other options, but adds, "Honestly, we don't have a good Plan B. Anything we do, we have to go through the utility."

Ferguson stresses that the college's array wouldn't have been subsidized by other ratepayers, because the college wouldn't have received a developer incentive like those provided to solar-garden developers like SunShare.

"Our project didn't have any performance-based incentive," Ferguson says. "For a comparable solar garden project, the utility would have rebated a minimum of $3 million and up to $6.4 million."

All of the college's frustration poured from students who demonstrated earlier this month.

"It comes down to a question of whether our utility is willing to take their energy future into their hands or wait until economic forces or some other regulatory body demands they do it," says Ben Feldman, a junior psychology major from Oakland, Calif.

Feldman and the others want the city to close the downtown coal-fired Drake Power Plant, a matter that's currently under study, with a decision due this summer. They also oppose hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, which currently isn't a pressing issue in the area, since drillers have hit only dry holes locally. Still, the students orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to Council on that issue and have shown up at Council meetings as well.

"We're frustrated with the status quo of energy in Colorado Springs," Feldman says. "There are not options for people who want renewables. If Colorado Springs is interested in economic development, they ought to be heeding the voice of young people who want to stick around and start businesses here."


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