With the theme, “Developing New Markets: Solar Leads the Energy Transition,” Solar Power Colorado 2016 – which ran from March 7 to 9 in Broomfield, CO brought more than 550 attendees together to help chart the role of solar in transitioning Colorado’s energy paradigm.
The optimism was infectious, so thanks to all our sponsors, exhibitors and attendees for providing an enriching three days to motive us all for the coming year. Rebecca Cantwell, executive director of COSEIA, opened the conference with a review of 2015 victories. Noting that there are now almost 30,000 PV systems installed in Colorado, she went on to recap recent national and local policies that support solar:
- The investment tax credit (ITC) was renewed
- The Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) upheld net metering without changes
- The Colorado state legislature passed a measure that allows community solar garden subscribers to buy into projects located in adjacent counties. * COSEIA launched the advocacy initiative Solar CitiSuns. (Sign up here)
Former Interior Secretary and U.S. Senator Ken Salazar began his keynote address by praising COSEIA. “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.
Guest speaker Jacqui Patterson of the NAACP noted the importance of inclusion and equity in a solar future.
Solar Faces Challenges at the State Level
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 at the national level. “The fight is on the state level,” he said. He noted that Colorado needs to adopt policies that continue to drive solar development to regain its place as a top solar leader. Willie Mein of Boulder-based Custom Solar however warned that with the utilities as gatekeepers, “the fox is watching the henhouse” and can both limit the supply of solar energy and compete unfairly with the private market.
Utilities in the Spotlight
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 “grid use charges” for all residential customers and a pilot project that would test demand charges and time-of-day pricing. Another filing proposes reconsideration of the previously rejected Solar*Connect program, in which Xcel would sell shares of a utility-scale solar electric plant to customers at premium prices.
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 rate 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.”
In a keynote presentation, national utility policy expert Karl Rabago called for a new model of the “Sharing Utility.” He explained, “The utility needs to be a platform, rather than `you get to buy what they give you’.” He called for utilities to move from being “The Company Store” to “The Community Store” where a variety of services and distributed energy sources are available.
Utility leaders described the challenges they face in a rapidly changing marketplace. Xcel Energy vice president Alice Jackson pointed out that not all customers “want to make these (solar) choices.” The utility is required to provide safe and reliable service and seeks to balance that with offering a smarter distribution system and more options, she said. Pat Mooney, general manager of IREA, noted that his coop is a distribution utility and faces challenges paying for upgrades. “We have solar developers wanting to sell to us, but we have committed to Xcel to buy from them so we don’t have a free hand,” he said.
Citing the popular trend of utilities increasing fixed costs for customers, Vote Solar’s Rick Gilliam said he was not convinced rates needed a major change. “Solar is being singled out for discriminatory treatment and yet I’ve not seen a cost study that shows any cost shift or a problem with the existing rate structure.”
A Distributed Energy Future
Many speakers sketched a vision of a distributed energy future with solar powering smart devices and interactive services. Jeffrey Siegel, chief of marketing for Panasonic Enterprise Solutions revealed details of the smart city his company is developing near DIA featuring a battery storage project with Xcel Energy. Andrew East of AET Solar described multiple technologies working together at company headquarters, including the solar thermal panels his company makes.
The Many Faces of Solar
Other panelists explored a wide range of topics from a solar thermal pilot project COSEIA is spearheading on the Western Slope to green building codes, and from new smart grid technologies to ways to drive down costs on large projects. The growth of community solar, Commercial PACE financing, and the importance of including low-income communities in solar development were themes that echoed through the conference.