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Residents are warming up to alternative energy

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

One energy expert’s forecast for nontraditional fuels: clear, with fair weather ahead.

“We’re seeing more power generated by alternative sources as costs come down,” Mark Schwantes, manager of corporate services at La Plata Electric Association, told a Green Business Roundtable crowd this week. “Alternative energy is biomass, solar, geothermal and hydro.”

No coal, no natural gas, Schwantes said Wednesday in his talk, called “Alternative Energy Outlook,” given to 50 lunchtime attendees.

The roundtable, which formed in 2002, meets every second Wednesday at the Strater Hotel. It brings together people and businesses interested in environmental issues.

Schwantes later expanded on the topic with additional statistics, focusing on advances by the solar industry.

Since 2006, businesses and individuals in the LPEA service area, basically La Plata and Archuleta counties, have installed 441 solar systems, Schwantes said.

Sixteen systems were installed in 2006. The peak year was 2010 with 96. So far this year, 67 solar systems have been put in place.

The cost of a 4.5-kilowatt system has dropped from $45,000 in 2006 to $18,000 today, with the corresponding cost per watt falling from $10 to $4, Schwantes said.

LPEA, one of 44 electric cooperatives that purchase power from Denver-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission, is nearing the 5 percent limit on power it can purchase from local, nontraditional sources. The limit is placed by Tri-State, and LPEA would like an increase in the limit.

LPEA gets its 5 percent of locally produced power by buying the production from a small hydroelectric plant at Lemon Reservoir, the waste heat recovered from Williams’ natural-gas operations and the excess energy produced by solar photovoltaic systems.

The Tri-State portfolio shows 19 percent of its energy comes from clean sources such as hydro, solar, wind and natural gas. Sixty percent is from coal, and the other 21 percent of purchased power contains some coal.

The LPEA board has set a goal for locally generated power of 20 percent by 2020, Schwantes said.

Among the bright spots Schwantes highlighted in the alternative-energy outlook:

The continuing effort of a Pagosa Springs entrepreneur to burn biomass from forest waste to produce electricity.

The growing number of households and businesses installing solar arrays connected to the LPEA grid to cut their electric bill or perhaps sell their surplus to the cooperative.

The community solar garden project approved by the LPEA board in September. Small users and people who can’t accommodate a roof-top system or have a poor home orientation can join forces to install a solar garden project.

Two interested parties already are considering creating a solar garden in their midst. They are Heartwood, a 24-unit communal-living group near Bayfield, and Twin Buttes, a subdivision with a potential of as many as 600 units west of Durango.

A coalition of solar-energy proponents, formed as Solarize La Plata, has started a campaign to bring solar arrays to 100 houses in La Plata County.

Participants would get hardware at a cut rate, bargain financing and free technical help. Organized by the Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency, the project is based on one developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the city of Portland, Ore., and chosen as a model by the U.S. Department of Energy.

daler@durangoherald.com

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