Flip switch on electric co-op?

Some Durangoans say it’s time to look beyond LPEA for renewables

Derek Wadsworth, owner of Solar Works, says he’s worried La Plata Electric Association’s plans to decrease solar power reimbursement rates will discourage future photovoltaic projects. The new solar panels Solar Works placed on the biology wing of Berndt Hall at Fort Lewis College are manufactured and assembled entirely in the United States. Wadsworth said the vast majority are made in China. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Derek Wadsworth, owner of Solar Works, says he’s worried La Plata Electric Association’s plans to decrease solar power reimbursement rates will discourage future photovoltaic projects. The new solar panels Solar Works placed on the biology wing of Berndt Hall at Fort Lewis College are manufactured and assembled entirely in the United States. Wadsworth said the vast majority are made in China.

La Plata Electric Association’s 20-year franchise as Durango’s electricity provider should not be renewed, some Durangoans say, because of the firm’s lukewarm commitment to renewables.

Historically, Durango was on the energy industry’s cutting edge. Durango’s Discovery Museum showcases the legend of how the brilliant, possibly crazy, visionary engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla brought electricity to Durango around 1890, as Tesla’s hated rival, Thomas Edison, established the Edison General Electric Co.

But at a recent City Council meeting, Durangoans wanted to know why the city has not attracted innovative energy providers, solar farms, wind turbines and biomass fuel refineries and the jobs that clean energy might generate.

“Why is LPEA buying energy from Midwest providers when there is wild wind and 300 days of sunshine in Durango?” one attendee asked.

LPEA’s CEO Greg Munro tackled that question recently, citing formidable obstacles to getting alternative energy in Durango: flawed technology, a brutal recession and the city’s geographical isolation.

“Clean-energy companies do not want to spend money on relocations in this economy,” Munro said. “It isn’t easy for an energy firm to relocate here. Durango is not on an interstate highway, and we don’t have an international airport. Solar and clean energy have become politicized, so it has been harder for solar farms and alternative-energy producers to get the government grants that might help them launch a new venture.”

Nearly all solar panels are manufactured in China. Solar Works owner Derek Wadsworth proudly installed American-made solar panels on Fort Lewis College’s new biology building this week. But he is nervous about the future.

“LPEA gives Durango residents 50 cents per electrical watt if they install solar panels this year,” Wadsworth said. “The average Durango homeowner would probably need 5,000 watts of solar panels installed so they would get $2,500 from LPEA. But next year, the amount will be only 40 cents per watt and will decrease each year until LPEA is paying only 10 cents per watt. That kind of devaluation isn’t good for alternative energy or the people who provide it.”

The recession may have hampered solar technology from developing more rapidly. Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C., research group studies all forms of energy. The group said solar panels are still expensive to install. The cheapest panels often operate at only 40 percent efficiency, meaning half of all sunlight captured is never converted to power.

But LPEA is ready to sponsor some clean-energy initiatives in Durango.

City Manager Ron LeBlanc said solar panels will be installed on City Hall in spring 2012 thanks to an LPEA rebate.

“It’s part of an LPEA program that starts with LPEA assessing how much energy seven different city-owned buildings use,” said city spokesperson Sherri Dugdale. “After the assessment, we started retrofitting our lights with high-efficiency bulbs and ballasts. LPEA will come back and do an energy assessment of the same buildings then give us a rebate for the amount of energy we saved with our retrofit.”

LPEA project manager Ray Pierotti is conducting the assessments. He already gave Durango a rebate check for the two buildings it completed, Chapman Hill and the General Services auto shop.

“The program is open to any Durango business or resident,” Pierotti said. “We’ve given more than $50,000 in rebates to Durango customers since the program began a year and a half ago.”

Resources for the Future scholar Joshua Linn is working with MIT on a study on the practicality of powering a city by a solar grid.

“A city needs power 24/7, and storing solar energy after dark has been a technical challenge,” Linn said. “But the technology is improving so heat not used in the day can be used at night to heat water and create thermal power.”

Linn said one thing a city needs for a solar grid is something Durango has just an hour’s drive away.

“The town or city would need a big chunk of desert that is public land,” Linn said. “The solar farm panels would capture the sunlight and there would be enough room to build a geothermal plant or a small natural-gas plant for backup support.”

In Pagosa Springs, Renewable Forest Energy LLC plans to generate electricity by crushing wood chips inside a gasifier. Renewable founder J.R. Ford says he has investors ready to back him so he can build a plant and hire 20 workers. But he needs a 10-year contract from the U.S. Forest Service to clear trees.

“Without a steady stream of trees, the project is not financially feasible,” Ford said.

The Forest Service wants to decrease chances of forest fire by thinning brush and trees in Southwest Colorado. With that wood, “my plant can produce 5 megawatts, enough electricity to power one-third of Archuleta County,” Ford said.

LPEA’s Munro is excited about Ford’s start-up. The proposed site for Ford’s plant is only 2,000 feet from an LPEA booster station.

ledwards@durangoherald.com