Pitch to put solar panels on Longmont schools sparks renewable energy debate

Renewable Energy
Benefits of adding solar generation without energy storage being weighed by Front Range leaders

Longmont City Councilwoman Marcia Martin is skeptical of a proposal a green energy advocacy group is exploring by going door to door in Northern Colorado inquiring about resident support for placing solar panels on schools.

The group, Community for Sustainable Energy, is led by Fred Kirsch, a Fort Collins city council candidate.

Its organizers have been asking Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins residents whether they would support a rooftop rental pilot program, allowing the respective municipal utilities, or Platte River Power Authority — which provides wholesale energy to all three cities plus Estes Park — to lease space on schools and other large buildings and maintain ownership of the power produced by solar panels.

A new tool

Currently, homes and businesses with solar generation systems are rewarded by municipal utilities through a billing policy known as net metering, by which customers own the power they generate and sell any excess back to the grid. While the concept is consistent across Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins, the incentives for solar and billing structures vary between the cities. Fort Collins has a higher adoption rate, since the other two cities charge solar power generators a greater monthly service fee than standard customers.

But Kirsch said he believes allowing property owners to lease space on their roofs to utilities for solar generation creates a more equitable gateway to renewable energy, especially if the program were to expand to homeowners who have optimal roofs for solar but can’t afford a five-figure down payment on a generation system.

A similar model was immediately popular when it launched in San Antonio in 2015.

“Net metering is very popular on the residential side, and we’re not advocating a replacement of that,” Kirsch said.

Rather, Community for Sustainable Energy sees the idea as a tool to help communities reach their full solar potential, according to its website.

Fort Collins Utilities has kept the rooftop rental program on its list of ideas to study further, Energy Services Manager John Phelan said, adding there are “benefits and challenges.”

Longmont Councilwoman Martin, however, claims the rooftop rental program is economically unfeasible. Kirsch contends a utility could pay up to $2,000 for enough rooftop space to generate one megawatt of solar power and still break even. One megawatt can meet the instantaneous power demand of 750 homes, according to the California Energy Commission.

Martin said adding more solar generation systems to homes and businesses throughout the city without an energy storage component is counterproductive to helping Longmont and its fellow Platte River Power members reach their goal of a grid delivering purely renewable energy by 2030. Nearly a third of Platte River’s power comes from renewable sources now, and it has plans to add 170 megawatts of wind and solar power assets to achieve 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2021.

“If somebody asked me about solar panels right now, I would say wait two years and then buy solar and a battery,” Martin said. “Right now we’re at a point where adding local solar is not very valuable in terms of its social good. It’s a lot better to have dispatchable supply in the form of batteries.”

Meeting storage at ‘crossroads’

She is worried there won’t be enough storage capacity on the grid as Longmont’s and Platte River’s supplies approach a greater percentage of renewable energy, resulting in a glut of solar generation in the afternoon, making energy almost free to consume then, and a corresponding drop-off in production during the nighttime until sunrise, making power expensive at that time. That schedule would reverse the current trend, which sees the price of power increase with a higher demand in the afternoons when people simultaneously run air conditioners.

On a fully renewable grid, energy usage during the night would have to be curtailed or deferred to times when the sun is shining to keep it at a stable price, unless enough solar power captured during the day can be stored and released as needed. Adding storage mechanisms is especially crucial for realizing the full environmental benefit of using renewable energy to power increasingly popular electric vehicles that are charged overnight, Martin said.

“In a very few years, there will be an excess of solar power on the grid as we approach 100 percent renewable,” Martin wrote this month in an email to Councilwoman Joan Peck. “Platte River has privately said they expect to reach 80 percent by 2025, and that it gets very difficult after that because of the problem of matching demand to supply. That’s the opposite of what they do now.”

But Blake Jones, cofounder of Boulder-based Namasté Solar, which performs home and business solar installations throughout Boulder County, believes Longmont is still a ways from reaching the point at which adding more solar without storage is a problem.

“In a few years, storage is going to be so much cheaper, and the technology is going to be so much better, we should be trying to meet it at the crossroads by putting solar in every available space,” Jones said.

While he said the “jury is still out,” on rooftop rental programs like San Antonio’s, Jones would support adding the option as an entry into the solar market. But he said it won’t necessarily augment the chances for low-income households to participate in the solar movement, as no-money-down financing options for generation systems have been available to such residents for years.

Available land a factor

Plus, the rooftop rental program being pushed by Community for Sustainable Energy might not be necessary for cities like Longmont that are surrounded by plenty of undeveloped land, according to Steve Szabo, a Colorado Renewable Energy Society board member who lives just outside Longmont city limits.

“There will be less of a need for rooftop solar, unless there are some places, like New York City, that don’t have a lot of space for utility-scale solar,” Szabo said. “Then they would rent out rooftop space from people. There is still a lot space (around Longmont) they could do utility-scale solar because it is so much cheaper than rooftop.”

Building more community solar gardens is Szabo’s suggestion for letting more people support the transition to renewable energy. The output of community gardens is currently capped at two megawatts, but a bill being considered in the state Legislature would increase that maximum to 10 megawatts.

For those without the right roof space, or who can’t afford to finance their own solar system, “you can feel you’re a part of this movement by buying a few of these panels or buying output” in a community solar garden, Szabo said.

The issue of solar power and how to effectively harness it for wide consumption will continue to be examined for years to come, said Scott Rochat, Longmont Power and Communications spokesman.

“With interest rising in self-generation and with more renewable energy coming into our mix, we will be analyzing the possible effects so that Longmont’s electric infrastructure will continue to meet the community’s needs, as it has for the past 107 years,” Rochat said.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com and twitter.com/samlounz.

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