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Study finds potential for 25-fold increase in community-scale solar in Garfield and adjoining counties. It also explains why this would be good.

by Allen Best

At first glance, a study of the solar potential of the Pitkin, Eagle, and Garfield counties makes no real sense. It talks about job creation if the potential solar development were realized—as if Aspen and Vail needed more jobs to fill and more affordable housing to build.Ah, but Garfield County might be another matter. It’s already partly a bedroom community for the resort communities, and its fossil fuel sector likely will never regain the vigor that produced miles-long traffic jams out of Rifle 15 years ago.

“The Three-County Solar + Storage Study and Action Plan” reports that the potential for community-scale solar could grow by more than 25-fold and meet 24% of the electricity demand in the three counties. It provides maps to show suitable locations.

And the mapping just happens to show the greatest potential lies in Garfield County, especially in that area where the Colorado River Valley widens out around Rifle.

The plan recommends actions—including lobbying to change federal policies that would make increased community solar and storage, what the report calls “CCS+”—more attainable in semi-rural and rural areas of Western Colorado.

A $120,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs plus matching funds from Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties paid for the study. It was sponsored by Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen, and Carbondale-based Clean Energy for the Region, or CLEER.

“What this study shows is that local solar and storage is an important part of an overall strategy for reaching our 100-percent renewable energy goals in a way that benefits our communities,” said Katharine Rushton, renewable energy program director for CLEER, the study’s primary author.

It’s not as if existing utilities haven’t already set high bars. Two municipal utilities, Aspen Electric and Glenwood Springs, have already hit 100% renewable electricity targets. The electricity for both is mostly imported, especially from wind turbines on the Great Plains.

Holy Cross Energy, the largest utility in the three counties, already has contracts in place that will soon push the cooperative’s renewable portfolio to cover 73% of the fuel mix. Negotiations underway could grow that to 85%. It has a new solar farm near Aspen and one under construction in the Glenwood Springs area. This is in addition to f both wind and solar power from Eastern Colorado.

Xcel Energy, another utility provider in the region (and a major supplier of the electricity delivered to Holy Cross), expects to achieve 80% renewables by 2030, perhaps higher.

The two utilities collectively have 7 parcels in the planning process in the three-county area that could yield 31 megawatts of generating capacity.

 

This report takes aim at Xcel, especially, because it has the service territory where some of the best solar potential lies. But the report addresses Holy Cross, but in a different way.

It argues for local generation of solar power even if local comes at a higher cost than that which can be imported from large solar farms elsewhere.

Think of this as the locavore argument applied to energy. A microgrid may be the closest equivalent. What is a microgrid?

“The main market competition for CCS+ on the distribution grid is from much larger utility-scale solar projects developed on the transmission grid that sell power through bulk supply contracts,” the report says.

“These larger projects benefit from economies of scale, which deliver a lower levelized cost of energy than is possible for smaller community-scale projects built on the distribution grid.”

Why develop local juice if imported can be cheaper? The answer is at the heart of the report.

Rushton, in an interview after the report release, stressed the importance of “community benefits.” Solar and storage can augment local properties taxes and, particularly in the case of Garfield County, deliver jobs as the local economy built on gas extraction ebbs over time.

A report on the economic impact to Garfield County will be forthcoming.

To assist local communities and the utilities, the report partnered with a mapping company to create a tool that Rushton believes may be a first in Colorado in identifying suitable parcels for development. The report also provides a variety of other resources to landowners interested in solar development.

The mapping is “probably more important to Garfield County than to Eagle County, primarily because Garfield County is in transition,” she said. “We are not suggesting that solar plus storage will take (the place of natural gas extraction), but we are showing what role it can play in the transition.”

Rushton is among many who foresee the need for Colorado to eventually aid oil- and gas-based communities in achieving a smoother pivot, what is being called a just transition, as it has already set out to do with coal-dependent communities. County officials in Garfield and Rio Blanco officials, meanwhile, fret that state regulations have stalled potential development of natural gas from the Piceance basin. See story.

As regards Holy Cross, it has a strategy that emphasizes local generation to balance imported power. But Holy Cross faces barriers. It’s partly a reliance upon Xcel’s control of its transmission. But there are also regulatory barriers to stand-alone battery storage. One is the federal Investment Tax Credit, which is limited to storage when placed in the same place as solar.

The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, a 1978 law, also needs to be amended to provide flexibility in location of stand-alone battery storage. That same amendment could also boost potential for hydro pump-back storage, which Rushton says could provide much larger-scale, longer-term capacity.

“We won’t be able to achieve 100% clean energy goals just with battery storage as it is too small and of short duration to meet the total storage need,” explains Rushton.

Beyond these and several dozen other action items, the plan also acknowledges that local generation alone will not be the answer to achieving the deep, deep penetration of renewables. For that, a regional transmission organization, or RTO, will be needed.

“Without the services of an RTO, Colorado’s grid is too small to balance out supply and demand with increased levels of renewable energy,” the document states.

“Achieving higher levels of renewable energy grid penetration in Colorado will require participation in a power pool that can provide a larger geographic area for balancing demand with supply across time zones and from a diversity of energy generation resources.”

This is from Big Pivots 48. Please consider subscribing to Big Pivots.

Jenna Weatherred, a spokeswoman for Holy Cross, which worked with the study team, credited the report with adding valuable information. “We just really appreciate the work they have done,” she said.

Ben Bohmfalk, a board member of Garfield Clean Energy and Carbondale town trustee, had a slightly different takeaway: “What this study emphasizes for me is that we’re moving forward on the clean energy transition at both the local and regional level, and our communities are embracing the opportunity and moving forward without waiting for action at the federal level.”

Top: Solar PV collectors at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle in2014. Photo/Allen Best

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