COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – June 24th, 2014 – Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) hosted a discussion group this past Thursday, June 19th 2014, focused on increasing renewable sources of energy within CSU’s service area. Led by CSU’s General Manager of Acquisitions, Energy, and Planning, John Romero, the group was well attended by local businesses, educational institutions and members of the Armed Forces. The focus of the meeting was to identify crucial sustainability missions of the institutions represented (i.e. carbon neutrality goals) in the hopes of finding commonalities amongst those involved. The meeting sought to come away with an understanding of how CSU can help these institutions along their paths while satisfying their own goal of providing 20 percent of their total electricity energy through renewable energies, voluntarily doubling the state’s requirements.
These talks have begun as a result of a Colorado College student-led protest at the CSU Leon Young Service Center just two months prior on April 11, 2014. The protest, covered well by the Colorado Springs Independent (http://www.csindy.com/coloradosprings/colorado-colleges-plan-for-its-own-solar-array-goes-dark-triggering-student-protest/Content?oid=2859811), was in response to the cessation of talks between CSU and CC to create a $6M, 2mW photovoltaic array, which, if implemented, would have generated approximately 35 percent of the college’s energy. The protesters were met at the front of the Leon Young Service Center by CSU’s leadership team (Chief Executive Officer Jerry Forte, Romero, and Chief Officer of Environment, Health, and Safety Dave Padgett). Later that day, CSU’s leadership team came to CC’s campus to continue the discussion with a core group of protesting students. The meeting concluded with a clear resolution: communication must be strengthened between Utilities and members who wish to see an increase in renewable energies. The group met two weeks later, this time with college officials, to return to negotiating possible deals around renewable energy.
Nearly two months later and the two sides have met again to encourage potential players in renewable energy. Romero and Colorado College student Michael Stevens have been in regular communication in their attempts to create a team of customers that may be interested in buying in on a 10mW solar array located at Clear Springs Ranch, the previous site Colorado College and CSU were negotiating over. Romero and CSU hope to have power on the grid from this solar array before June 30, 2015, when a statewide rebate program will end that rewards Utilities companies with three times the amount of Renewable Energy Certificates (REC’s). This rebate program means that the construction of a 10mW solar array would yield the REC’s equivalent to a 30mW solar array. These REC’s have a monetary value and can be bought, sold or traded amongst institutions looking to work their way to carbon neutrality. This lucrative program is not the only ambition behind CSU’s drive to create the array, as Romero and his team abide by the philosophy that energy should be generated with the REC. This means that rather than solely buying REC’s and claiming it against their carbon footprint, Romero and CSU wish to generate clean energy within city limits so that they produce REC’s and supply the corresponding energy furthering the benefit for the city.
Perhaps the most interesting topic of the discussion this past Friday was the concept of the true cost of solar energy. This concept is a derivative of the findings from the article published in 2011 by the New York Academy of Sciences, titled, “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” In this article, the authors find that the true cost of coal is nearly triple the amount of what ratepayers are billed for when the processes of producing, transporting and distributing coal are monetized. These costs to society are externalized currently, and taxpayers pick up the burden. When the true cost of coal is fully accounted for, new light shines on the energy debate, literally. Given that solar is a clean and renewable energy, its full cost does not multiply like coal’s full cost; therefore, though solar is more expensive up front, it ends up being less expensive for the ratepayers and taxpayers, as it has a lower true cost.
The topic is so interesting because it highlights a theme of the discussion, namely: How far into the future are institutions willing to account for? Proponents for solar energy claim to be looking decades down the road, while advocates for coal believe we must maintain focus on current base-line costs. The discussion at Leon Young did not come to a definitive answer of where to put its focus, but participants walked away with Romero echoing in their heads, “Nobody can tell your institution whether to take the risk to invest in solar; that is a calculation the institution must make.” The topic takes on more meaning in spite of the recent fire at the Martin Drake Power Plant on May 5th, 2014 and the recent EPA proposal by President Obama for power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from their 2005 levels, an issue well covered by the Colorado Springs Gazette (http://m.gazette.com/article/1520888). If nothing else is clear, Colorado Springs City Council will have to make a decision on which energy direction to take in the near future.
While Romero’s team seems to be largely in support of ventures into solar, one cannot help wonder if it matters. It is no secret that members of the City Council, in their role as Utilities Board members, have recently been hostile to renewable energy pursuits. Just ask SunShare, a local startup that began with 2mW community solar garden in Colorado Springs that had to stand by and watch the City Council rescind their original approval of a 10mW expansion of their original garden, well covered again by the Colorado Springs Independent (http://www.csindy.com/coloradosprings/sunblock-for-sunshare/Content?oid=2734676). As a municipal utility, CSU has the tough task of providing a nationally competitive rate for all residents and businesses, and an even tougher task considering its’ board has no members with energy degrees. This makes Romero’s pursuit all the more important.
Even if Romero can identify customers willing to invest in a large portion of solar energy generation, he and his team will need to convince the board to approve a Request For Proposals (RFP) for the array. Presentation for this specific RFP will occur during CSU’s board meeting on July 16, 2014. Until then, the partners in the recent discussion are awaiting a concept paper from Romero’s camp that will describe their mission and goals for this RFP, giving the partners a plan in writing that they can present to their institutions for funding support. After the meeting in July, the group looks to reconvene in mid-August to receive an update from CSU about the progress of the proposal. The hope is that those with a serious interest in clean energy can band together to show City Council, and the rest of the Springs Community, their needs are not being met.
About Colorado College
Colorado College is a nationally prominent, four-year liberal arts college that was founded in Colorado Springs in 1874. The college operates on the innovative Block Plan, in which its approximately 2,000 undergraduate students study one course at a time in intensive 3½-week segments. The college also offers a master of arts in teaching degree. For more information, visit www.ColoradoCollege.edu
For more information on this story, contact Mike Stevens at Michael.Stevens@ColoradoCollege.edu or at 719-389-6025