It is a familiar path. A new technology is developed. Everybody wants it, but it is prohibitively expensive. But over time, as the technology is refined and improved, costs come down. More people can then afford the products, and economies of scale drive prices lower still. The same pattern is playing out with alternative energy.
In a Wednesday talk to the Green Business Roundtable, Mark Schwantes of La Plata Electric Association explained the progress of alternative energy. From what he said, however, it appears that what has to happen is to restructure larger systems to accommodate that growth.
Think of the 1987 movie “Wall Street” and the Michael Douglas character strolling on the beach while talking on his phone. The phone, the size of a large shoe, was evidence of his status as a high roller. Fast forward 26 years and smaller, cheaper and far more powerful devices have become standard gear for middle school students. All electronics have followed the same trajectory.
Other technologies have slightly different courses, but similar outcomes. Cars are not cheaper than they were 50 years ago, but they are far more capable, immensely safer and get much greater gas mileage.
In the energy field, that process can be seen most clearly in the cost of solar systems. As Schwantes told the group last week, the price of a 4.5-kilowatt system has fallen from $45,000 in 2006 to $18,000 today. That drops the cost per watt from $10 to $4.
As costs dropped, more systems have been installed. Sixteen were put in place in 2006. So far this year, 67 have been installed, while the high point was 96 in 2010.
And with that, alternative energy, which Schwantes defined as biomass, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric power, is already an increasingly important component of our energy mix. LPEA gets locally produced power from a small hydroelectric plant at Lemon Reservoir, from waste heat recovered from Williams’ natural-gas plant and from excess power produced from solar arrays.
That has the potential to dramatically increase. A Pagosa Springs entrepreneur is working toward producing electricity from biomass by burning forest waste. Two housing projects, the Heartwood communal-living group near Bayfield and Twin Buttes, a Durango subdivision with the potential for as many as 600 homes, are both looking at establishing solar gardens. And Solarize La Plata, a coalition of solar proponents, means to add solar arrays to 100 homes across the county. Add all that to the systems already being added every year and the impact could be significant.
Except that right now La Plata Electric could probably not use all that extra power. LPEA buys most of its power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission based in Denver and Tri-State limits how much power LPEA can buy from nontraditional sources to 5 percent. And with its existing alternative sources, LPEA is nearing that limit.
La Plata Electric would like Tri-State to raise the limit, which might be a good short-term fix. In the long run, however, there should be a larger plan to accommodate whatever alternative energy that can be produced.
Eighty-one percent of Tri-State’s power is wholly or in part the product of coal-fired plants. Some arrangement needs to be worked out by which alternative energy can be used not only to power people’s homes, but to reduce that coal component. How to get there is unclear, but in the end, is that not the point?