In solar energy, Rifle shines most brightly
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In at least one way, Honolulu’s got nothing on Rifle.
Honolulu, coping with Hawaii’s high costs to import petroleum products, leads major American cities in solar power generated per person, at 265 watts. It’s far ahead of No. 2 San Jose, California, which generates 97 watts per capita.
Rifle’s 325 watts per person is in a league of its own. That counts only the government solar power in Rifle, not private installations. Denver, counting private installations, is at 89 watts per person.
Rifle city government has achieved net zero status — it produces at least as much electricity as it draws from the grid. The estimated annual value of the solar power it produces tops half a million dollars, according to estimates from Garfield Clean Energy, a collaborative of 10 local government organizations.
In Garfield County, Rifle leads the way on this Earth Day with 3 megawatts of community solar generating capacity. Carbondale is second, with 711 kilowatts of capacity after a large array at Roaring Fork High School goes online.
The county’s public solar installations range from Holy Cross Energy’s new, 1.9 MW solar farm in Missouri Heights to solar flowers at Parachute’s Interstate 70 rest area that run an electric vehicle charging station and fill the rest stop’s other electrical needs.
“Garfield County is a great place for solar,” said Heather McGregor, a former PI editor who is administrative manager for Garfield Clean Energy. “That’s what all these governments are finding out — they can have very real savings.”
Glenwood Springs, though, brings up the rear among towns in the county, with one installation on its Community Center roof with 20 kilowatts of capacity. The town runs its own electric utility and hasn’t been able to take advantage of incentives from Holy Cross or Xcel Energy.
In Rifle, Keith Lambert, who was mayor from 2001-2011 and served two more years on City Council, was a driving force for solar.
Living in the community for 34 years, Lambert said, he’s had a front-row seat to the boom and bust cycle of the natural gas industry in western Garfield County.
“Extractive forms of energy have a lifespan,” said Lambert, who’s quick to share credit for Rifle’s solar burst with a strong city staff. “If we’re not working toward the other side of the lifespan, we’re fooling ourselves and are going to get caught flat-footed at some point.
The fact that Rifle is among the nation’s leaders in solar power per capita “is a feather in the cap of this community and the county,” he said.
HOW IT STARTED
Public solar in the county got started with two small installations in Carbondale in 2004 and 2006, the latter being a 6.4-kW array on the roof of the Sopris Park picnic shelter.
Then, “Rifle got things started with its really big arrays in 2008-09,” McGregor said.
She noted that, unlike Glenwood Springs, Rifle had ample land available to install arrays, including space once used for uranium and vanadium milling.
The county had something of a solar boom after it got a state Department of Local Affairs grant that led to 17 installations in 2010 and 2011. Every community in the county got some solar power out of that grant.
Rifle, Silt, New Castle and Carbondale continued on the solar path, arranging power-purchase agreements. These deals involve the town government, Xcel Energy and a private financier.
Since Xcel Energy is required to generate 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, it offers a long-term credit payment to customers that install renewable energy systems. The financier pays for installing the system on town government building rooftops or land, and the government buys the power at a rate lower than the market rate.
While electricity is generally cheap in the county, solar can act as a hedge against future increases, said Jesse Morris, a manager in the transportation and electricity practices at Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank and consulting operation in Old Snowmass.
“Grid electricity prices are likely going to increase a half a percent to 3 percent a year for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Community solar such as Holy Cross’ two big farms fills a gap, Morris said, enabling utility customers to buy into solar’s advantages “even if you can’t put it on your roof.”
Glenwood Springs lags in community solar in part because of limited land and the valley walls limiting sunshine somewhat, but mostly because it runs its own electric utility and can’t take advantage of credits from companies like Xcel.
It does purchase wind power through its wholesaler, Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, but rates have been rising sharply in recent years.
Partly because of those increases, the City Council has renewed discussion of Glenwood generating some of its own electricity.
Public Works Director Robin Millyard said the city will conduct a high-level review of its energy opportunities, and has talked about building a solar garden that would be utility-owned and -operated.
“This council I think has interest in pursuing renewables and I think has interest in pursuing it locally,” he said.
He noted that “solar is not necessarily the end-all solution. It’s difficult to dispatch and hard to keep (panels) clean. The efficiencies drop pretty quickly” when solar panels get dirty.
Morris said Glenwood might be able to benefit from solar generation in ways beyond locking in rates. Some utilities, he said, are discovering that rather than upgrading substations, they can install solar with energy storage and save money overall.
“That’s becoming a viable option across the U.S.,” Morris said.
McGregor said she was “excited to hear City Council talking about generating its own power.”
McGregor said it’s important for any municipality “to carry out the maximum level of energy efficiency measures before you go solar. … Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective” factor in the power cost equation.
Energy efficiency involves such measures as lighting, insulation and efficient heating and cooling systems and controls. Glenwood has completed efficiency projects that save an estimated $50,000 a year in energy costs. It trails Garfield County government and Carbondale, which has been particularly aggressive in energy efficiency.
McGregor noted, “If you do energy efficiency first, then you don’t need as big a solar array.”
Why, though, in one of the nation’s top counties for natural gas production, would communities stress solar energy?
“We want to set the stage for the future,” said Lambert, the former Rifle mayor. “We’re ahead of the game.”
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