Solar is strong in Colorado, but industry leaders are not resting. At the recent Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association’s (COSEIA) 2016 Solar Power Colorado conference, speakers talked about the achievements the industry made over the past year and noted that there are still some challenges.
The conference, with the theme, “Developing New Markets: Solar Leads the Energy Transition,” ran from March 7 to 9 in Broomfield, north of Denver. Rebecca Cantwell, executive director of COSEIA, opened the conference with a review of 2015 victories. Among the national and local highlights were the following: The investment tax credit (ITC) was renewed, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) upheld net metering without changes, and the Colorado state legislature passed a measure that allows community solar garden subscribers to buy into projects located in adjacent counties. Also, Cantwell said, COSEIA launched the advocacy initiative Solar CitiSuns. She also showed a map of statewide photovoltaic systems. “There are 29,363 PV systems in the state,” she said. “We counted. They’re just about everywhere.”
Former Interior Secretary and U.S. Senator Ken Salazar began his keynote address by praising the association’s work. “I have watched COSEIA grow, and now it’s in its third decade,” he said. “Solar is alive and vibrant, and the nation really watches what happens here in Colorado.”
Salazar, quoting a figure from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said that the industry expects to add 9.5 GW of solar capacity nationwide this year. There has been much progress, he said, but there are some flash points to watch. One is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which the Supreme Court delayed with a stay in February. Another challenge, Salazar said, is rooftop solar and net-metering disputes with Xcel Energy and the costs of updating the grid. “This is an issue today that is not only important for Colorado, but also for the country,” he said.
Other speakers noted that although the solar industry is pleased with the ITC extension, there are still issues that need attention nationwide and in Colorado.
At the opening plenary session, “What’s Ahead for the Solar Industry,” Jesse Grossman, CEO of Soltage LLC, said the ITC extension answered the question of whether solar will continue its momentum. “The fight is on the state level,” he said. “Colorado was, for a period of time, in the top five states for solar deployments, and currently, Colorado is 14th in the nation. Conversations need to happen right now about lessons learned, [renewable energy certificate] markets, tariffs, solar carve-outs and to focus on what it takes for solar development to move on in a sustained manner.”
Willie Mein, owner of Custom Solar in Boulder, Colo., talked about “surviving the solar coaster” and noted that the barriers to deployment are not technology, economics or demand. “It’s other market forces,” he said. “The utility is the gatekeeper watching the henhouse, with limiting capacity, arbitrary requirements and unnecessary processes.” For example, Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards program limits the size of a customer’s rooftop solar array to produce no more than 120% of the customer’s annual kilowatt-hour consumption.
At another session, “New Solar Policy for Colorado,” moderator John Bringenburg, president of the COSEIA board of directors, mentioned that Public Service Co. of Colorado, Xcel Energy’s utility in the state, recently filed its Phase II Electric Rate Case with the CPUC. The proposal includes a smart meter pilot, a reconsideration of the previously rejected Solar Connect program and “grid use charges” for PV customers.
The proposal raises fixed rates to make up for lost revenue from customers’ reduced consumption, said Rick Gilliam, program director of distributed generation regulatory policy at Vote Solar. “That’s what has triggered many of these proposals,” he said. A better rate design would be time-of-use rates. The three large investor-owned utilities in California – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – are switching to time-of-use rates, which encourages consumers to shift their energy use to off-peak periods. “In terms of a success story, that’s the best one right now.”
Cindy Z. Schonhaut, director of the Office of Consumer Counsel at the Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs, said the office, which represents the interest of consumers, is against Xcel’s proposal. “Without having some of the fixed costs recovered through usage charges, the consumer has less ability to lower their bill with more efficient appliances or using less,” she explained. “That’s to make the utility whole and reduce their risk. That’s not in the public interest just by itself.”
Panelists also discussed the Clean Power Plan, which is on hold after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped its implementation. The plan is now under review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The delay leaves states wondering whether to continue working on meeting the carbon-reduction requirements.
“We have had people say you should put your pencils down – don’t waste time and money having people do work that amounts to nothing,” said Chris Colclasure, deputy director of the air pollution control division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “On the other hand, we don’t want to sit back and watch the pages of the calendar. We are trying to identify what we can do.”
He said the only immediate result is the department will not have to ask for an extension of the plan’s now-obsolete first deadline, in September, for submitting a compliance plan. “We will continue planning to reduce carbon emissions,” he said. “We think it is prudent to place Colorado in the best position that we can.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.