Southwest Colorado is bathed in sunshine, boasting more than 300 days of it per year and ranking near the top for photovoltaic solar potential. But when it comes to solar power generation in La Plata County, the sky is not the limit.
As is the case across the country, several obstacles prevent solar energy from shining as brightly as it could – including natural, political and technological limitations.
The debate between keeping costs low by using fossil fuels and being environmentally responsible by employing alternative energy technologies is lively across the country, including at local co-ops such as La Plata Electric Association, which covers La Plata and Archuleta counties. The different viewpoints were evident among candidates during this year’s election for the board of directors.
But the challenges haven’t stopped residents and businesses in La Plata Electric Association’s service area from embracing renewable energy, regardless of the steep up-front cost.
In 2003, only two customers had photovoltaic panels that fed energy into the local grid, called net metering. As of last week, there were 828 customers with solar panels linked to the grid, said Dan Harms, manager of rates, technology and energy policy for LPEA.
Those panels have a total capacity of 4,785 kilowatts, enough to power almost 5,000 households if they ran at full capacity 24/7. Of course, solar panels don’t produce electricity 24/7. Rather, their collection of the sun’s energy produces the equivalent of 5½ hours at full capacity, which is enough to power 1,144 homes – or almost 3 percent of the co-op’s total residential usage, he said.
“If you exclude Hawaii and California, I think you’re going to see that’s a very high percentage,” Harms said.
Excess energy that isn’t used by a home or business is sent to the grid, which buzzes at a fairly consistent 120 volts.
And therein lies one of the problems.
If too many people add electricity to the lines, it increases voltage, which can negatively affect household electronics and appliances. It doesn’t help that solar production peaks at midday when most people aren’t home using electricity.
“That’s the big challenge that we have, is that people aren’t typically home during the day, and the solar is going full bore,” Harms said. “There’s a lot of reverse power flow that happens because of that.
“The generation should match the load,” Harms said. “When you have more generation than load, it can create problems.”
Larger or dedicated transformers can be used to mitigate the voltage rise, but even then, if too many customers generate power before it’s used, it causes problems for neighbors. That’s why daytime businesses make good candidates for solar because they use the electricity as it’s being produced versus sending so much to the grid, he said.
“There’s tons of room to grow in the commercial sector for solar, where that load and generation profile coincide better,” Harms said.
Of course, some people live “off the grid,” meaning they don’t rely on LPEA at all and aren’t considered customers. They typically need batteries to store the power they generate during the day and a generator for long periods of cloudy weather.
Residents on the grid also can use batteries to off-set their evening usage, but it significantly increases installation costs.
The technological limitations in the grid have prevented some residents from installing solar panels, but not many.
Of the 214 applications submitted in 2015, LPEA denied only two. Eight customers were required to make infrastructure upgrades before installing solar, and 23 were approved to install solar at a reduced capacity from what they were seeking. Overall, 85 percent of applications were approved outright, Harms said.
“We have plenty of room to grow at this point, and there’s new technologies that are coming around that are going to help us do more,” he said.
Residents and businesses generate solar power “behind the meter,” meaning it slows down individual meters or causes them to go in reverse when enough energy is created. It also means LPEA can’t track exactly how much energy is being produced by solar panels compared with how much is being used by a household or business. Customers are only charged for what the meter reads at the end of the month.
LPEA pays customers if they produce more power than they use, but it’s paid once a year at wholesale cost, which isn’t an incentive for residents to produce more than they can use.
While there is room to accommodate additional solar customers, that is not necessarily the case with large-scale projects such as solar gardens that allow residents to buy into a project without having to install their own photovoltaic panels.
That is because the co-op buys its energy from Tri-State, which consists of 44 member co-ops. Per terms of its agreement, LPEA must buy 95 percent of its energy from Tri-State. That enables Tri-State to buy power in bulk, which keeps costs low for members.
Thirty years ago, before renewable energies became a viable option, Tri-State made significant investments in coal power. Those investments remain on the books and must be paid off.
“It’s not like you can just drop it today and say I’m going to go chase the cheapest thing out there,” Harms said.
Twenty four percent of Tri-State’s portfolio consists of renewable energy, which means LPEA buys 29 percent renewable energy when counting the 5 percent it purchases outside Tri-State, including solar, hydro and biomass.
Fortunately, net metering doesn’t count as part of the 5 percent limit, which leaves plenty of room for individual homeowners and businesses to install solar.
The biggest hurdle for most residents remains the up-front costs, Harms said. It takes about seven years to break even on the investment. Fortunately, there are tax credits, including the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which is a 30 percent tax credit for homeowners and businesses to purchase and install solar.
But there’s another economic reality that may soon need to be addressed.
Residents with solar receive 12.5 cents benefit for every kWh they produce. But LPEA must maintain the same infrastructure, which means other members subsidize solar users. Solar proponents argue that it’s a short-term subsidization for long-term environmental gains. Either way, there’s not enough solar generation yet for it to make a big difference, Harms said, but that could change.
“Our expenses aren’t going anywhere, they’re still there, but the rest of the membership is helping to pay for that,” Harms said. “But at some point, I think there’s going to have to be a reality shift to have it stand on its own a little more, and, unfortunately, it’s going to make it harder to justify putting solar in.”
Despite the challenges, politicians and citizens have shown a desire to overcome the hurdles associated with enhancing clean energy options. Investments in renewable energy production such as wind and solar have outpaced that of coal for the second year in a row, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“It is a good thing,” Harms said. “It’s just got its challenges, and we can overcome them.”