New Power Solar Energy Systems offer a low cost solution to energy needs.
by Joe Smyth | WinterParkTimes.com
Mountain Parks grapples with solar.
Co-op considers policy change that would doom Fraser solar project, others.
Plans for a solar power array at the Fraser wastewater treatment plant would be derailed if the Mountain Parks Electric Board of Directors rolls back a key renewable energy policy.
During its July 13 board meeting, Mountain Parks Electric board members and staff discussed how the electric cooperative should respond to growing interest in low cost solar power from homeowners and towns in Grand County.
Mountain Parks Electric Manager of Communications & Member Relations Rob Taylor explained at the board meeting that the steep decline in solar power costs in recent years means that more Mountain Parks Electric members are now able to pursue solar projects that deliver electricity at a price that “beats all our rates, we can’t compete with that… With our rates going up and solar going down, it presents a real eye-opener for us.”
One option presented to the Board by Mountain Parks Electric General Manager Tom Sifers would be to reduce the maximum size of “net metered” residential solar power systems from 25 kilowatts down to 10 kilowatts, and for commercial solar power systems from 250 kilowatts down to 25 kilowatts – a 90 percent reduction.
Net metering allows homeowners and businesses that install solar panels to sell any excess electricity back to the grid at the retail price.
Fraser solar project on the line
If Mountain Parks Electric reduces the size of net metered commercial solar power systems, it would derail the solar plans for the Fraser wastewater treatment plant. The town of Fraser is pursuing a 200 kilowatt solar array at the wastewater treatment plant, which serves Fraser and the town of Winter Park and accounts for the majority of Fraser’s municipal electricity demand. According to Fraser Town Manager Jeff Durbin, electricity costs for the wastewater treatment plant run about $180,000 per year, and a solar panel array could reduce those costs.
But if Mountain Parks Electric rolls back its net metering policy for commercial systems, Durbin said, “We wouldn’t be able to pursue this solar project.” Durbin requested that Mountain Parks Electric not change its net metering policy.
Mountain Parks Electric General Manager Tom Sifers acknowledged at the board meeting that the electric cooperative had not reached out to towns, homeowners, businesses, or other cooperative members about potential changes to its renewable energy policies. However, Mountain Parks Electric board member Peggy Smith, whose district includes Fraser, said in an interview that she expected the electric cooperative would consult with towns before it proceeded with any policy changes.
Mountain Parks Electric Board President Greg Norwick urged staff to discourage the towns from pursuing their own solar projects, and to try and sell them on the cooperative’s “commitment to the community, and employment and dollars that we spread throughout the community.” Norwick added, “I’d go up there and wrangle them.”
Residential solar projects could be impacted
In addition to the Fraser wastewater solar project, Mountain Parks Electric staff and board members expressed concerns with homeowners’ growing interest in residential solar arrays. A solar installation company called New Power has recently been offering solar leases to homeowners in Grand County.
New Power urged Mountain Parks Electric not to change its net metering policies.
“Homeowners within the Mountain Parks Electric cooperative have expressed tremendous interest in going solar with New Power,” said Thomas Shaffer, CEO of New Power, “Unfortunately, the proposed changes to the net metering program could have a negative impact on their opportunity. Grid-tied solar systems are a net benefit to MPE as they provide clean renewable energy and reduce the peak-hour burden on the grid. It is our hope the net metering program will continue without changes.”
Vice President of Sustainability for Aspen Skiing Co., Auden Schendler, also criticized efforts to roll back renewable energy policies. In an email, Schendler said that “this sort of downgrade to allowable solar capacity appears to be the kind of regressive utility politics played by dying co-ops. You can’t fight the solar revolution, so it’s much better business to get on board the bus rather than let it run you over. If I were a businessman or homeowner in the region served by that utility, I’d be looking for candidates to run for the board who realize utilities are going to have to engage the clean energy revolution.”
Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners are in the process of acquiring Intrawest and its resorts including Winter Park Ski Resort, which is among the largest electricity users in Mountain Park Electric’s service territory.
Electric cooperatives can put customers first, but are mostly unregulated
Mountain Parks Electric’s efforts to respond to the new dynamic of cheap solar power is part of a broader trend within the utility industry. As the New York Times reported this month, investor-owned utilities have succeeded in slowing the growth of residential solar power by lobbying states to roll back net metering and other renewable energy policies.
However, a key difference is that Mountain Parks Electric is an electric cooperative whose customers are also its owners. Unlike investor-owned utilities which may seek to maintain investor profits at the expense of customers, Mountain Parks Electric is a nonprofit, which should be better able to focus on what is best for its members.
But because it is a cooperative, Mountain Parks Electric is largely unregulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Investor-owned utilities seeking changes to renewable energy policies must convince state regulators or legislatures. In contrast, electric cooperatives like Mountain Parks Electric can change their own rules without oversight from state regulators.
The Mountain Parks Electric Board of Directors ultimately took no action on net metering at its July 13 meeting and decided to continue to study the issue. Board members and staff also discussed the possibility of pursuing other approaches to respond to competition from low cost solar.
Mountain Parks Electric Manager of Communications & Member Relations Taylor said, “We’re going to have to make some choices, and one of those could be getting into the solar industry.”