Springs’ renewable energy emerging from shadows

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David Amster-Olszewski helped raise money for solar panels at Colorado Collge and now his compnay SunShare will build community solar gardens if City Council approves regulations Sept. 27.

While Colorado has a reputation for having one of the fastest-growing green economies in the nation, Colorado Springs has limped behind in the shadows through most of these formative years.

But that may be changing.

That’s what David Amster-Olszewski hopes. He’s behind an effort to persuade the Colorado Springs City Council to approve a program that will allow community solar gardens to connect with the city’s power grid and offer customers bill credits for doing so.

He’s already started taking deposits for the first solar garden his company, SunShare, plans to build in October.

The 24-year-old Colorado College graduate knows that renewable energy isn’t as hot in Colorado Springs as it is in other parts of the state, but he’s jazzed to have a chance to get a solar garden started here — before Denver or Boulder have one.

City Council is scheduled to consider approving solar garden regulations on Sept. 27. If they are approved, customers will be able to buy solar panels in the garden for $550 each and get a credit of 9 cents per kilowatt hour, roughly what a kilowatt hour costs.

“I am floored,” Amster-Olszewski. “I’m absolutely blown away that something like this is going to happen in Colorado Springs and that Colorado Springs Utilities could act so fast.”

Amster-Olszewski began working with the utility less than five months ago.

His biggest hurdle now will be convincing people to participate in the program. He knows it will be more difficult here than it would be in other places. But he’s up for the challenge.

He faced a similar challenge during his senior year at Colorado College.

College administrators said they planned to install solar “in the future” and Amster-Olszewski asked “why not now?” They told him they would build it if he could raise the money.

“We shook on it,” Amster-Olszewski said.

He raised almost $200,000 in four days, and they signed a contract with an installer.

This is not Boulder

Still, Colorado Springs customers might be a harder sell than the CC administration.

“If this were in Boulder, it would be sold out in a week,” Amster-Olszewski said.

He said he would have gotten leads in Boulder from solar installers about people who wanted systems but whose roofs faced the wrong direction or had too much shading or who couldn’t borrow enough.

“I know whole companies up there with dozens of employees,” he said. “Here, I know of three or four guys, individuals, who install solar.”

There are fewer installers in Colorado Springs because there isn’t as much demand for renewable energy here, said Joe Rogers, business manager for Rocky Mountain Wind and Solar.

It’s a smaller community, but there are other reasons.

“It’s cultural,” Rogers said. “Denver and Boulder, you have a lot more people who are environmentally enlightened, I guess you would say. Buying a solar system is a strong emotional and economic decision. For cultural reasons, you’re going to sell more Prius in Boulder than you would in, say Houston. It’s the same with solar.”

Colorado Springs Utilities communications coordinator Dave Grossman agreed that the culture here is more conservative and the population base here may simply have less interest in renewable energy. He also said that the municipal utility aims to have rates 20 percent below regional utilities, so reducing rates is not as much of an incentive here.

As a municipally owned utility, Colorado Springs Utilities is only required to generate 10 percent of the power it sells from renewable sources by 2020. Private utilities that service more than 40,000 customers, like Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy that serve Denver and Pueblo, are required to get 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Doubling down

While “green” is not the same buzz word in Colorado Springs that it is in the rest of the state, the movement is picking up speed. In addition to the SunShare initiative City Council will vote on at the end of the month, CSU will discuss its Electric Integrated Resource Plan, or its 20-year plan, during its Sept. 21 meeting.

The plan calls for an increase in the utility’s renewable energy portfolio from the 10 percent by 2020 required by state law to 20 percent. A citizens’ advisory board of 18 community leaders proposed a plan that would get the utility close to its voluntary goal of 20 percent, mostly through 50 megawatts of wind energy purchases before tax credits are set to expire in 2013, Grossman said.

The plan comes after surveying customers and finding that a majority support paying slightly higher energy bills in order to increase the renewable portfolio,

“Customers see that, long-term, renewables are a hedge against rising fossil fuel costs,” said Colorado Springs Utilities energy acquisition manager John Romero.

He said that 78 percent of customers would support a 1 percent increase on their bills and 62 percent would support a 2 percent increase in order to integrate more renewable energy into the utility’s portfolio.

The utility currently gets about 8 percent of its power from renewable sources. Most of that comes from a handful of hydroelectric generators sprinkled around the Pikes Peak region. A tiny fraction of it comes from 182 rooftop solar arrays installed since 2006.

While the utility has not emphasized distributed generation projects like home solar arrays, it has increased its financial support for solar. It nearly doubled its rebate from $778,339 in 2010 to more than $1.5 million this year. More than $555,000 remains, Grossman said. He said the rebate budgeted for next year is the same.

While Rogers at Rocky Mountain Wind and Solar notes that Colorado Springs is a slower market than the rest of the state for renewable energy, it is growing here.

“It’s true when you drive out to Briargate, you’re not going to see solar on every roof,” Rogers said. “But we are personally expecting it to be a busy fall.”

Sales have picked up during the last year as sales have fallen.

There were 58 new solar installations by the end of June, up from 35 in all of 2010, 31 in 2009 and just 20 in 2008.

Young professionals and new energy

A solar garden like SunShare that Amster-Olszewski plans to build, opens solar to the masses, to people who live in apartments or who are upside down on their mortgages or who have little money to invest and can’t lay down $20,000 or $30,000 and wait for the government and the utility to refund them, Rogers said.

It encourages renewable energy by making it easy to invest in. People can lease as few as two panels, which would cost $1,100 and would save them about 10 percent on their utility bills, Amster-Olszewski said.

He knew when Colorado passed legislation enabling utilities to work with solar gardens last year that he wanted to build one. He thought it would be in Xcel country until City Councilwoman Jan Martin asked him why he didn’t do it here.

While she likes the idea of bringing solar energy to the masses, what really interested her was an opportunity to bring young professionals to Colorado Springs.

“Coming off of an election where almost every single candidate talked about the importance of attracting and retaining young talent,” Martin said. “That entrepreneurial spirit, when I spotted it in David I wanted to do everything I could to get him to stay.”

Martin said she believes there’s a link between attracting innovative projects like solar gardens and other renewable energy endeavors and attracting young professionals.

She said she’d do her part to get the regulations approved if he would work on the project.

“We shook on it,” Amster-Olszewski said.