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Summit envisions tri-county solar network, joint projects

By February 25, 2019 May 8th, 2020 No Comments

Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman speaking at the summit.

Feb. 25, 2019 – Gathered at a “solar roadmapping” summit in Glenwood Springs last Thursday, representatives of local governments, utilities and other stakeholders moved forward on developing a regional network to ramp up renewable energy projects in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties.

The 60-plus participants tentatively agreed to align their efforts across the three-county region with Gov. Jared Polis’s statewide goal of achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040. They also identified opportunities to collaborate on projects such as utility-scale and rooftop solar and region-wide electric vehicle infrastructure.

Click on the image to see the Post Independent’s coverage of the solar summit.

The event was facilitated by staff from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and organized by Clean Energy Economy for the Region and Garfield Clean Energy.

The event attracted representatives from all three counties, multiple towns, Xcel Energy, Holy Cross Energy, Eagle Climate Action Collaborative and Walking Mountains Science Center, the City of Aspen’s climate protection program, Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, Colorado Mountain College, RFTA and a number of solar firms and finance companies.

While details of the three-county network’s structure remain to be worked out, elected officials expressed support for the concept Thursday.

“The original inhabitants of these beautiful places we live, the Native Americans called the Utes, would be most pleased that we’re coming together here today to sustain this land by advancing renewable energy,” said Glenwood Springs City Council Member Rick Voorhees.

Voorhees also sits on the board of Garfield Clean Energy, a countywide collaborative whose members include many of the entities participating in the solar network.

“I’m happy to report that every member of our county board is enthusiastic and engaged in this energy moonshot – that we will be focused on it in 2019 and beyond, and that we are eager to cooperate with our neighboring counties, municipalities and utilities,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman.

Communities and major energy consumers in the region can play a significant role in helping to reach the state’s targets, according to Katharine Rushton, CLEER’s renewable energy program director. She added that recent utility commitments open up new opportunities for achieving major progress on renewables.

Holy Cross Energy, whose service area overlaps with Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, has set a goal of increasing the renewable-energy content of its electricity from the current 40 percent to 70 percent by 2030. It hopes to achieve much of that through a bulk wind power purchase agreement that’s currently under bid, according to Steve Beuning, Holy Cross Vice President for Power Supply and Programs.

Xcel Energy, the other big electric company serving the region, has set a Colorado-wide goal of 80 percent renewable energy by 2040, and Xcel’s trade relations manager Kevin Cray told the attendees that it’s on track to hit 55 percent by 2026 thanks to projects already in development or being planned.

While much of the new electricity is expected to come from wind farms on the Eastern Plains, participants affirmed the goal of siting more solar projects on the Western Slope.

Building new solar farms and rooftop solar is a way to create jobs and diversify a local economy that’s long been based on energy production, noted Katie Mackley, Rifle Regional Economic Development Corporation assistant director.

She added that she sees investment in clean energy as a strategy that offers common ground in a politically diverse region, since it appeals to shared interests such as saving money, convenience and self-reliance.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky pointed out that while local renewable energy projects can help diversify the economy, the region needs to be aware of the role that severance taxes and property taxes paid by the natural gas industry play in supporting libraries, local governments and schools. “We will need to find a way to ensure that funding for public services remains stable.”

Rushton noted that working together on a regional scale will enable the three counties to benefit from economies of scale, pool resources, and access potential funding.

Participants explored ways to speed the construction of both public rooftop solar and utility-scale arrays.

For rooftop solar, they focused on strategies to help local governments put panels on every public building in the region, and to lower the cost of panels through bulk purchasing initiatives.

As for larger, utility-scale projects – which will likely be the main component of meeting the utilities’ goals – they noted the need to make the region “shovel-ready” by identifying sites and streamlining permitting.

Alison Holm, an energy planner with the National Renewable Energy Lab, praised the effort as cutting-edge. “The fact that you are all gathered here, so many different kinds of partners from a three-county region, shows innovation and leadership, and could be a model that other places in the country can learn from.”

Rushton said that the next step for the participating partners is to confirm which regional projects would work best at a regional scale and to continue to develop a regional network or collaborative structure.

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