An in-depth study issued this fall has detailed the status of and potential for solar power in the tri-county region — Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties — and has outlined a series of steps for how to implement its findings. Titled “Three-County Solar + Storage Study and Action Plan,” it was produced through the collaborative effort of Carbondale-based Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER), Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) and Walking Mountains Science Center in Eagle County.
The study grew out of a February 2019 workshop, led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), focused on developing a strategy for increased solar generation in the region. A grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs provided the bulk of funding for a full-scale study of the possibilities. Additional funding was also provided by the three counties and the nonprofit Garfield Clean Energy.
A nearly three-year project ensued, led by members of CLEER, CORE and Walking Mountains. Technical assistance was provided by NREL, RMI and representatives of the region’s two principal utilities, Xcel Energy and Holy Cross Energy (HCE).
A Nov. 4 press release on the report states, “The study is based on the premise that Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties comprise an interdependent region with common interests. The three counties are tied together by energy utility boundaries and an interconnected economy and workforce, and include many residents living in one county but working in another.” CLEER’s Katharine Rushton, a project team member and primary author of the study, stated, “What this study shows is that local solar and storage is an important part of an overall strategy for reaching our 100-percent renewable energy goals in a way that benefits our communities.”
Team member Kim Schlaepfer of Walking Mountains noted, “We recognize that planning for a clean energy future requires a regional approach, and we are excited to continue our work with regional partners to deliver clean renewable energy and its many benefits to our community.” CORE’s community sustainability manager, Phi Filerman, added, “CORE was excited to see the study’s findings of how much potential there is for solar throughout our interdependent region and to understand the importance of its local development.”
Research and analysis were focused on two types of solar installations — community-scale solar (CSS) and net-metered (NM) — as those were deemed to be the most practical and economically feasible options for reaching an optimum level of solar generation in the region. CSS arrays, like the new installation in Woody Creek, usually range in generating capacity from one to 15 megawatts and cover five to 75 acres. Increasingly, they include battery storage units, what the study termed “community-scale solar + storage,” or CSS+.
Also considered was NM solar: typically, rooftop arrays on homes or businesses but also ground installations, which offset a customer’s electricity usage.
The report first determined how much power the tri-county region consumes per year and then studied the region’s resource potential (solar irradiance), which, not surprisingly, is high. From that, it calculated that there is a technical potential for CSS+ to generate about two-fifths of annual consumption. That value was then qualified by estimating what the market potential was for CSS+ generation annually (i.e., what realistically could be generated, taking into account such limiting factors as economic competition and regulatory constraints). The result was 232 megawatts, nearly one-fourth of the region’s total demand.
The study explained that, in 2020, HCE and Xcel Energy combined generated only about 8.5 megawatts from CSS installations, the great bulk of it by HCE. However, it also noted that more than 30 megawatts of new CSS installations have been planned, are underway or completed, including the now-operational 5 megawatts array in Woody Creek, a 4.5 megawatts installation at the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus scheduled to come online early next year and a 10 megawatt project in Silt in the early stages of development. All have been HCE projects; the latter two include battery storage capacity (CSS+).
Battery storage was strongly advocated for in the report, because it “allows utilities to store low-cost renewable energy when generation is high and demand is low, and use that stored power when demand rises locally or on the wider electric grid.” In addition, it helps “maintain a resilient energy supply during emergencies, and make[s] new solar development viable for the local electric grid.” Regional power-supply resilience was also a strong reason for increasing solar generation in general, as well as for reducing carbon and greenhouse-gas emissions.
The regional potential for net-metered solar (residential plus commercial) was also calculated, which, if fully developed, could constitute nearly half of the total annual consumption. As of 2020, annual NM generated in the region accounted for only about 24.2 megawatts, about 5% of total potential. Again, HCE was leading the way in NM generation. In addition, interest has been growing in homeowner NM solar arrays, including this year’s Solarize Garfield initiative.
The study reviewed the regional economic market, describing barriers to large-scale CSS+ and NM+ development, including utilities with different operating structures, regulatory impediments and utility restrictions on access to regional transmission grids. It noted that incentives to install battery storage units could be increased significantly by revising federal investment credits and public utility regulatory policies.
The report then analyzed the economic impact of developing the full market potential of CSS+ on the region’s local economy, which could amount to about $73 million during the construction phase and some $3.2 million annually thereafter in land-lease revenues, property taxes, operations and maintenance. It was also estimated that about 260 jobs related to solar development could be sustained in the region.
The last section of the report was an eight-step Action Plan that included such recommendations as developing low-cost financing sources, utilizing local expertise when planning and constructing solar installations, advocating tax incentives and regulatory changes to make solar more feasible (including becoming part of a regional transmission organization) and encouraging local educational institutions to develop solar-related degrees and training programs.
The full report and a 23-page Executive Summary are available via the Western Colorado Clean Energy Network (wccleanenergy.org/3-county-solar-study/).