Showdown looming for solar energy in Colorado

KUSA - Xcel Energy has applied to the Public Utilities Commission for approval of a new voluntary program. The program would enable customers to offset their annual electric usage with solar energy, without installing a system of their own. It's called "Solar Connect," and it's modeled after the company's Windsource program that sells subscriptions for wind power.

Under the proposal, Xcel would offer short-term solar subscriptions to customers for solar energy that would be generated from a new, large solar facility. The utility says the program is an alternative to onsite solar or community solar gardens.

It looks like Xcel may be changing the game for solar energy in Colorado. A showdown may be looming between the utility and the rooftop solar crowd.

The company has decided to take its solar segment to a new level, which may disappoint customers like The Johnson's of Centennial. They are sold on their rooftop solar array.

Their electricity bill this month was only $8.25. If you combine that with their gas bill of $50.07, it comes out to a total of $58.72 for heat and light.

Even when they add in the monthly cost of leasing their rooftop array, which is $87.72, they are still under $150 a month for energy.

"We really wanted to put in solar years ago," Mary Johnson said. "So we're very pleased that we did it now, and we do get the benefits."

The power meter on their house actually spins backwards, even on a cloudy day. It's an experience that continues to drive the rooftop solar industry in Colorado, which is very healthy.

"There are over 150,000 solar jobs in the United States, and about 3600 of them are here in Colorado," said Blake Jones, President and CEO of Boulder's Namaste Solar. "It's a very large industry."

Jones says with solar currently generating less than 1 percent of our electricity, the industry is just scratching the surface.

But now comes a game changer. Xcel is building a massive $220 million dollar "utility-scale" solar system next to its Comanche Generating station in Pueblo. That's 450,000 solar panels on 990 acres. It will be large enough to supply energy to more than 30,000 homes. It's the largest solar project of its kind east of the Rocky Mountains.

"The Comanche project is great because it's not only solar, and not only clean, but it is so low priced and so low cost, that we're actually able to save our customers money by having it on our system," said Xcel Vice President Frank Prager.

The array will look much like this one in Lafayette, only dramatically bigger. The designers believe the power industry is making a move toward these larger utility scale projects, because by some estimates, they deliver more affordable power than thousands of rooftop arrays.

Sam Sours of Community Energy designed the Lafayette array. He believes the larger scale projects will be the industry standard. "Yeah, if you look from the west, the California's, the Arizona's, the Nevada's, these larger solar scale projects have been slowly creeping their way east of the Rocky's," said Sours.

Eric Blank, President of Community Energy, agreed.

"When you get this scale, you can really drive down procurement cost and capital costs, so I think it's trending this way," Blank said.

That could spell trouble for rooftop solar. Xcel is currently paying 11 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity generated by rooftop solar. If it decides to suspend those payments, under what is called its "net metering policy," the rooftop industry in Colorado will disappear.

Namaste's Blake Jones agreed that could happen.

"Yes, that's correct. I think that will be a very tragic day for the Colorado solar market, because without the foundation of that net metering policy, I think that our solar market could go away," Jones said.

The Public Utilities Commission will evaluate rooftop solar at the end of 2014.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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