Basalt pulls the shade on solar panels |

Basalt pulls the shade on solar panels

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
The valley's largest solar array project in Missouri Heights features 6
Aspen Times file photo |

Basalt town government has decided not to buy panels in the next local solar farm assembled by Clean Energy Collective, but it’s far from an anti-environmental decision.

The council decided in a 6-1 vote that the town’s money would be better spent on more immediate efforts to reduce the government’s carbon footprint.

Councilman Auden Schendler, also Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of community sustainability, helped steer the town in a new direction after he won election April 5.

The town made a nonbinding commitment earlier this year to purchase $363,000 worth of panels and paid a $32,326 refundable deposit. The deal wasn’t as sweet as originally proposed, according to a town staff memo, because Holy Cross Energy will provide $30,000 instead of $50,000 in rebates.

Schendler met May 4 with Basalt’s Green Team and representatives of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency to reassess the purchase. The Green Team is a citizen advisory board that works on conservation and environmental issues. The Community Office for Resource Efficiency is a nonprofit that is helping Basalt study the sources of its carbon emissions.

The Green Team decided to reverse direction on the solar panels because it offers limited carbon benefits, according to a town staff memo. Preliminary results of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency’s study show that energy use, natural gas use and solid waste impacts from the town government, Basalt Sanitation and Midvalley Metro District combine to produce only 1 percent of the town’s overall greenhouse emissions.

The Green Team decided that accelerating the town’s conversion to LED street lights and making efficiency improvements in town buildings would do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also proposed working with the school district and large buildings owners to make the properties more efficient.

The town’s direction is consistent with the strategy many conservation groups espouse on energy efficiency. They often say “take care of the meat and potatoes before eating dessert.” Steps like adding to insulation of a building is regarded as meat and potatoes. Investing in solar panels is dessert, in the eyes of some conservationists.

The Green Team also found that investing in solar panels has “limited PR/education benefits — increasingly less of a statement,” according to the staff memo.

The council passed a new resolution authorizing Town Manager Mike Scanlon to ask for a refund of the deposit. It also directs the Green Team to work with the Community Office for Resource Efficiency on ideas to create a net-zero downtown “and for making a statement about reducing greenhouse gas emissions” in Basalt.

There was little discussion of the new direction.

Councilman Mark Kittle voted against the switch in direction without comment. Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said she would trust the experts. “I don’t know. I have to believe,” she said.

Clean Energy Collective was founded in 2010 by Basalt native Paul Spencer and has been heralded for providing a different model in alternative energy. Residential and commercial customers of a utility buy panels at a collective farm rather than individual roofs. The utility company credits customer accounts for their share of power produced. Spencer created the software that makes the accounting easy for the utility companies.

Clean Energy Collective has constructed three solar farms in the Roaring Fork and lower Colorado River Valleys and is planning a fourth. It’s also worked extensively in other parts of the country.

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