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Colorado’s solar transformation

With lots of sunshine, state embracing power shift

By Sue McMillin

Columnist for The Denver Post

The sun was, as usual, scorching my rooftop in southern Colorado in mid-June when I signed a contract to add solar panels.

Big Dog Solar out of Pueblo West had blitzed the neighborhood to take advantage of a 1-to-1 net metering deal offered by Black Hills Energy. By late summer many of my neighbors had added solar panels to our roofs or yards. It made sense to harness that relentless energy and use it to power the air conditioning needed to keep the house livable on those 100+ degree days, which seem to be more and more frequent.

The Colorado tourism office and solar installers brag that the state gets 300 days of sunshine a year, and while that is a myth, it is sunny enough to make solar a worthy investment for most households in Colorado depending on tree shade.

There’s no reliable “sunny day” definition or count, although one website list Pueblo as being 76% sunny, and Denver as 69% sunny with 115 clear days annually, and another lists Alamosa with 148 sunny days.

We also have increased solar radiation that comes with higher altitudes.

The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks Colorado sixth in the U.S. for how efficiently photovoltaic performs, after New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Utah, all of which get a larger percentage of their electricity from solar than Colorado does.

So why does only 4.3% of the electricity generated in Colorado come from solar? The 2,131 megawatts of solar capacity we have puts us 13th among the states for solar electricity generation, with enough to power 438,842 homes, according to the association.

The short answer is, we’re getting there.

 

Not fast enough for the staunch solar proponents who would like to see PV panels on the entire “built environment,” as they call it. I tend to agree — why build a roof and let the sun shine on it without harnessing that energy, especially with new construction?

“Every viable roof should have solar on it,” said Wade Wilson, a Go Solar associate with Environment America. “We’re supportive of individual residences going solar, that’s great. But it’s not going to be enough.”

The biggest roofs

That’s why Environment America launched a Solar on Superstores campaign, targeting Walmart. With more than 5,000 stores, Walmart has “ready-made sites for solar,” he said.

Add in other big box stores and shopping center parking lots covered with PV panels and you’re talking about generating some serious amounts of power. I might even forgive them for leaving on their energy-wasting brightly lit signs all night if they were solar-powered, although that power could be more wisely used for the communities in which they reside.

“In 2016, Colorado had 140 million square feet of big box store rooftop space, which could generate 1,244 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity,” Wilson said in an email. “That would be enough energy to power 156,000 average homes, or 165 Walmarts. It could offset 1,203 metric tons of carbon dioxide and save businesses $168 million annually.”

Walmart has significant energy goals, vowing to be at 100% renewable by 2035, according to its website. And it bought more wind energy than any other American company in 2019.

Many large retailers, including Albertsons and Ikea, are moving rapidly toward renewable energy. One of the largest retail solar capacity installations in the state, 1 megawatt, is installed on Ikea’s Centennial store, according to SEIA.

Target in 2019 made a commitment for its electricity use to be 100% renewable by 2030 and invested in two large solar and a wind projects this year, according to its website. More than 500 of its stores have rooftop solar.

Wade said that if retailers install solar panels they are seen by “everyday shoppers in rural and middle America, and that would be great for normalizing solar, which is what we need to do.”

Schools are another visible spot for solar panels, and the districts get significant energy cost savings.

The Colorado Energy Office in the fiscal year 2020 partnered with McKinstry, an energy service company, and Denver Public Schools to upgrade 27 buildings in the school district, including installing rooftop solar on 14 buildings. The project is nearing completion and is expected to save the district $1.5 million annually in utility and operations and maintenance costs, according to the Energy Office’s annual report.

The first reports on the effectiveness of the project are expected in late winter.

Going solar, or not

For individuals who want to go solar, though, it feels like jumping into a morass of technical overload, misinformation and hucksterism. It’s like making any major purchase — let the buyer beware.

Tons of information about residential solar can be found online. In fact, it’s rather daunting. Just deciphering the language of energy — kilowatts, kilowatt-hours, megawatts, British Thermal Units, etc. — required assistance from the Union of Concern Scientists and Our World in Data websites. And let’s not confuse capacity with actual production and usage.

Your utility company must approve your system if it ties into the grid. Off-grid systems with battery storage are not an option for most people because of space requirements and cost.

Utilities offer varying incentives, but often to a limited number of customers. You can start with the utility or ask a solar installer if they handle the permitting required by utilities and local governments.

I used an online solar calculator that gave me some idea of cost and the number of panels I’d need. But I quickly got a call and was told I might not hear from solar installers because my energy use was on the low side.

He was right, I didn’t hear anything until two months after I’d already contracted with Big Dog. Big Dog told me upfront that I wouldn’t save money on solar — but I’d probably break even.

I was motivated more by environmental and climate concerns so that was OK, and to be honest, the visibility of the solar panels was rewarding. I felt like I was doing something worthy.

My 8-panel, 3 KW system cost $16,500 (installed), which I financed through Good Leap and which was ultimately handled by Teachers Federal Credit Union. Big Dog handled all the loan paperwork and permitting with Fremont County and Black Hills Energy.

My initial monthly payment on my 20-year loan at 2.99% interest is $69 — my exact average monthly payment for electricity in 2020. If I put my $4,290 federal tax credit (which is not refundable) on my loan by February 2023, the monthly payment stays the same. If not, it will rise in March 2023 to $94.27. I also got a $750 loan rebate check for going with 20 years instead of 25 years.

Because I have a net metering agreement with Black Hills, I’m also eligible for a five-year tax deduction at $2,871 a year. Fortunately, Big Dog has a solar finance accountant on retainer that’s providing all the tax paperwork – for free.

The best news so far is the panels are more than covering my electricity needs and in three months I’ve banked about 350 kWh. My monthly bill is about $10, most of it a customer charge.

About one-third of Colorado’s solar generation comes from small rooftop installations, but mandates are pushing utilities to more renewables, and consciousness of climate change is pushing large businesses to do the same. Maybe we could just let the big users (like retailers with acres of rooftops) and utilities convert to renewable energy.

In talking with folks at the Colorado Energy Office, I began to rethink my “we should have solar panels on every roof in the state” stance and lean into a more holistic view of renewable energy and energy savings. I don’t regret my decision to go solar and encourage others to consider it, but there are plenty of options for contributing to our renewable energy future.

The transition

Currently, about 42% of electricity generated for utilities in Colorado comes from coal-fired power plants, followed by natural gas at nearly 27% and renewables at nearly 31%, according to the state’s energy profile at the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Also, about 68% of homes are heated by natural gas.

The drumbeat to transition to electric everything is loud, but if that electricity is generated at coal- or gas-fired plants, doesn’t that make things worse?

Not for long, said Kim Burke, a senior program manager with the Colorado Energy Office.

“We’re on a pretty fast trajectory to being 80% renewable by 2030,” Burke said.

And if you buy more efficient electric appliances now, you’ll reduce your overall energy consumption.

The state , according to the Energy Information Administration. And coal-fired plants are being decommissioned.

“You can only do so much. We’re in a transition,” she said. “Over the next 10 years as your equipment fails or gets older, put this other technology in instead. It’s a transformation.”

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