By Joe Smyth | email@example.com | @joesmyth
A look at two Colorado electric cooperatives navigating the implications of solar power’s declining costs
Emily Bowie at San Juan Citizens Alliance writes about how the La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) board of directors is discussing the implications of the declining costs of solar energy. Bowie describes how the “board’s touchiest topic is how the declining costs of renewable energy (and rising costs of coal) should impact LPEA’s future.”
Some board directors are concerned about how declining solar power costs could encourage more customers to install their own rooftop solar arrays, and what that might mean for the electric cooperative.
Other board members are more focused on the opportunity for LPEA to take advantage of falling solar power prices, by pursuing its own solar projects. As LPEA director Bob Lynch put it, “I want to be part of a plan that figures out how to use solar to help all our members.”
Bowie outlines the differences between centralized power like coal-fired plants, “behind the meter” systems that homeowners can install like rooftop solar arrays, and distributed power like community solar gardens and small hydro.
“The problem is that half the LPEA board is stuck debating behind-the-meter solar when the other half wants to explore our options for distributed renewable power,” says Bowie.
The board of directors of my own electric cooperative, Mountain Parks Electric, has also discussed the implications of cheap solar power at its recent meetings. During our July board meeting, Mountain Parks Electric General Manager Tom Sifers presented three recent developments showing why the cooperative needed to pay attention to the declining costs of solar power. One was growing interest in rooftop solar arrays from Mountain Parks Electric members. Another was that two towns that the cooperative serves are considering larger solar arrays at their water treatment plants, as a way to lower costs.
Third, Mountain Parks Electric had also recently seen prices for bids to build a solar project that the cooperative itself was considering, in collaboration with Rocky Mountain Institute’s Shine Program. Mountain Parks Electric General Manager Tom Sifers noted that those bids “got our eyes open that solar is here and you can buy it for 5 cents, and that’s cheaper than our wholesale rate, let alone our retail rate - it’s half of that.”
As Kevin Brehm with Rocky Mountain Institute describes, those bids for distributed solar projects “confirm that we have crossed a significant tipping point where distributed solar is not only a means to supply green energy and to promote regional economic development, but also an opportunity to decrease energy costs and to drive down bills for price-sensitive energy consumers.”
The solar projects will also deliver energy at a price that will stay flat, while power provided by coal plants is expected to continue rising.
Following the presentation by our general manager at the July meeting, Mountain Parks Electric board members discussed the opportunities and challenges presented by cheap solar power. Some directors discussed steps the cooperative could take to limit its members’ abilities to pursue their own solar projects, such as discouraging the towns from moving forward with solar projects, and reducing the size of solar arrays that could qualify for net metering.
At the same time, Member Relations Manager Rob Taylor highlighted the opportunity: “We’re going to have to make some choices, and one of those could be getting into the solar industry.”
Four months later, Mountain Parks Electric hasn’t moved to restrict its members from pursuing solar projects. There didn’t seem to be agreement on the board, and it also became clear that rolling back net metering policies would be controversial. The customers that electric cooperatives serve are also members and collectively own the co-op, and this dynamic seems to have informed the board’s approach.
But the board has been able to agree to continue pursuing its own solar projects. At its September meeting, the board unanimously agreed to sign a letter of intent to proceed with a solar project in Jackson County. It has also discussed pursuing other solar projects in Grand County.
There is a key difference that helps explain why the Mountain Parks Electric Board has been able to more easily agree to pursue new distributed solar projects. Unlike La Plata Electric, Mountain Parks Electric has not reached the 5% limit on local generation imposed by its contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission. So for now, Mountain Parks Electric can pursue distributed renewable energy projects without navigating that additional hurdle.
In contrast, as Bowie describes:
LPEA could actually obtain a majority local, renewable energy through locally controlled, distributed power. Doing so would not only boost our local economy and protect the planet – but also, because LPEA would control the facilities, it would lower electricity rates for everyone.
But Tri-State’s 5% cap on local generation paralyzes our ability to make this vision a reality. Until we find a way around the limit, we’re married to Tri-State’s increasingly high cost, coal-intensive rates.
Basin Electric faces growing pressure on coal from co-ops, insurers, and banks
Tri-State: Moving a cooperative power provider from coal to clean energy
Tri-State will replace coal plants with a gigawatt of new wind and solar
United Power and La Plata Electric ask Colorado Public Utilities Commission to determine Tri-State exit fee
Colorado Rural Electric Association spent electric cooperatives’ money supporting Republican politicians
Colorado Public Utilities Commissioner questions "whether or not Tri-State has been candid with us"
Rural America could power a renewable economy - but first we need to solve coal debt
Tri-State explores FERC rate regulation to limit state oversight
Poudre Valley Electric sets "80 by 2030" carbon free goal
Guzman Energy proposal would finance retirement of Tri-State coal plants, add 1.2 gigawatts of new wind and solar power
Colorado Public Utilities Commission will oversee Tri-State resource planning
Colorado communities and state Energy Office urge Public Utilities Commission oversight of Tri-State
Reports examine the impacts of Tri-State's high wholesale power costs
Tri-State executive involved with anti-Clean Air Act group since 2005
US Congressional Committee requests details of Tri-State funding to anti-Clean Air Act group
Renewable energy projects stalled in 2018 among Tri-State member co-ops
Second co-op asks Tri-State to pull “Better Together” ads
Tri-State won’t allow co-op members to attend annual meeting
Tri-State expects member co-ops to support bylaw changes at annual meeting
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union calls on Tri-State to adopt flexible contracts and more clean energy
Co-ops in Colorado push for change at Tri-State
Will Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska remain reliant on coal?
Tri-State ad campaign tells co-ops they’re “better together”
La Plata Electric concerned Tri-State debt will lead to higher rates
Colorado Public Utilities Commission asserts jurisdiction over Tri-State
More Colorado co-ops announce clean energy goals
Ski industry climate change efforts shift to electric utilities and their regulators
Public Utilities Commission rejects Tri-State motion to exclude Colorado Energy Office from exit charge case
Tri-State claims that co-ops "have intervened on Tri-State's behalf at the PUC” don’t add up
Colorado state legislators urge Public Utilities Commission to determine Tri-State exit charge
United Power says Tri-State policies are turning away large customers
Next PUC Commissioner John Gavan "consensus choice" of Governors Hickenlooper and Polis
Tri-State policy change discourages battery projects in rural Colorado and New Mexico
Colorado Public Utilities Commission orders Tri-State to "satisfy or answer" exit charge complaint from Delta Montrose Electric
United Power seeks solutions to "increasingly outmoded G&T business models"
Clean Energy Means Business Summit highlights renewable energy opportunities and challenges in rural Colorado
Governor-elect Jared Polis says moving Colorado toward more renewable energy will be a top priority
Electric cooperative officials discuss cheap renewable energy and an “eroding monopoly”
Delta Montrose Electric members vote for new financing options, supporting a potential buyout of Tri-State contract
Poudre Valley Electric requests Tri-State policy changes and fuel mix study
Holy Cross Energy plans to shift away from coal, aiming for 70% renewable energy
What do corporate renewable energy commitments mean for electric utilities?
Colorado Energy Plan approval will mean new renewable energy investments in rural Colorado
Report: Tri-State could save $600 million by shifting from coal to renewable energy
Delta Montrose Electric seeks new financing options to end contract with Tri-State
Wind energy jobs in rural Colorado attract bipartisan support
Colorado Energy Plan analysis shows switching from coal to renewable energy will boost jobs and local tax revenue
Poudre Valley Electric and Xcel Energy Colorado President win national awards from Smart Electric Power Alliance
Latest coal plant subsidy proposal could hit electricity bills in the West
Moody’s report: “High quality renewable resources” could help Tri-State and Basin Electric navigate rising carbon transition risks
Senator Heinrich highlights “frustrations in New Mexico” with Tri-State’s limits on local solar
Moody’s report shows Tri-State’s coal plants are more expensive than new renewable energy
Tri-State’s limits on local energy development are a growing problem for co-op members
Governor Hickenlooper discusses Tri-State at the Climate Leadership Conference
Bids for Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan include a proposal for the world’s largest battery
New wind and solar power in Colorado is now cheaper than existing coal plants
Companies' 100% renewable energy goals are getting results in Colorado
What does cheap solar mean for electric cooperatives?
Colorado towns and cities are helping push utilities to embrace renewable energy
How are electric cooperatives navigating the transition from coal to cheap clean energy?
Blocked from building more solar projects, United Power shifts to community batteries
Economic reality sets in for Tri-State efforts to expand the Holcomb coal plant
Solar projects in the works in Grand and Jackson counties
Mountain Parks Electric grapples with solar