Renewable energy has to be cost-worthy

Virgil Turner likes going green, but only if it works on paper.

That is to say, if it’s not cost-effective, he won’t push his employers, the city of Montrose, to do it.

As director for innovation and citizen engagement for the city, it’s Turner’s job to find new and cheaper ways for Montrose to operate.

So long before he approached a local solar manufacturer about powering the city’s wastewater treatment plant with renewable energy, he wanted it, like other city properties, to be as energy conscious as possible.

“There’s a saying that you should eat your energy efficiency vegetables before you eat your renewable energy dessert,” Turner said.

“The idea behind that is solar, or renewable energy as a group, is generally more expensive than the electricity you are getting from the grid. So, if you’re wasting energy in inefficient buildings or processes, then you’re going to be paying more for that wasted energy by going to renewable.”

As a result, before he got the city excited about installing a 23-kilowatt photovoltaic system, which the city just completed, he made sure the treatment plant was operating as efficiently as possible.

Over that past three years it did, cutting energy consumption by 12 percent and saving the city about $65,000 over that time.

“Over that past four years, we’ve saved about $140,000 over 12 of our largest facilities,” Turner said. “We feel that we’ve looked at everything that we could or should be doing and decided whether the payback’s too long to do additional efficiency projects. Now we’re starting to look where it makes sense to do renewable energy.”

That’s when the city turned to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and secured a $231,000 grant to install the photovoltaic system for its treatment plant, which is expected to save the city about $8,000 a year in energy costs.

Just last week, the town of Palisade did something similar.

There, Carbondale-based Sunsense Solar sold the town on the idea of building a 78-kilowatt solar system for its wastewater treatment plant, in part, because it managed to secure a 10-cent-per-kilowatt-hour buyback agreement with Xcel Energy before it lowered such plans to 9 cents a kilowatt.

Sunsense, which has been in business for 24 years, specializes in helping municipalities put together financing plans, which are tougher to come by these days.

Without such incentives, some folks just can’t make it work on paper, said Katharine Rushton, who works in commercial sales for Sunsense.

Grand Valley Power, the local rural cooperative, for example, offers no buyback plans even though it gets its power from Xcel, which does.

As a result, Grand Valley customers can’t get the help they need to make such projects financially viable.

“It’s a real source of frustration to the community in Grand Junction that one person is in Xcel territory and they can have solar, the next person down the street, they’re in Grand Valley, and they can’t because the economics just don’t work,” Rushton said. “Grand Valley is a little stuck in the past and aren’t very open to the idea of trying to create energy more through renewables and have a mix.”

As a result, Rushton and others in the solar industry are calling on rural cooperatives to get on the bandwagon and offer incentives.

They’re all hoping a new law approved by the Colorado Legislature to require certain rural cooperatives to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 will help.

Turner said such power-purchase agreements, like the one Palisade now has, is the only way municipalities will be able to make more projects work, but the power companies have to be onboard, too.

“I’m pretty gung-ho on PPAs, but if it’s direct purchase by a municipal government, I’m less so,” he said. “The reason PPAs are working is because of incentives. If all incentives dry up, unless there are substantial changes in the technology to bring the costs down to be competitive with coal or natural gas, then the forecast for the solar power industry is pretty bleak.”

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