SunShare owner not sure about the future

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Clean energy technology is one of the economy’s fastest-growing sectors, nationally and statewide, but is it a priority in Colorado Springs?

When the newly seated City Council voted to overturn a previous decision to expand a community solar garden program, it caused homegrown clean energy company SunShare’s founder to wonder if he should move.

“If this program doesn’t come back, I’m probably the last clean tech company that will ever come here,” said David Amster-Olszewski, the company’s 26-year-old CEO and a Colorado College graduate.

The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance recently named clean technology as one of nine industries it will focus on in an effort to diversify the city’s economy.

What does that focus mean?

“We look forward to working with businesses, elected officials and our utility’s leadership to develop the necessary strategies that will maintain competitive costs, high reliability and improve our probability of diversifying our business portfolio for the region,” Alliance president and CEO Joe Raso responded by email, to questions about what it means to make clean tech an economic focus sector.

Raso didn’t comment on how City Council’s reversal of its solar garden decision could impact the sector.

City Council President Keith King did not return calls or an email about the decision or his view on clean tech development in Colorado Springs.

This isn’t the first time City Council has reversed plans about investing in renewable energy. In February 2012, City Council, sitting as the Utilities Board, opted not to buy more than 200,000 megawatt hours a year of wind power under a 20-year contact, choosing a two-year deal for half as much wind power at a higher rate from Xcel Energy. The board said then it wanted to test customers’ willingness to pay a premium for renewable energy.

Utilities’ inability to commit to renewable energy could be giving the city a bad reputation, Amster-Olszewski said.

Growth industry

In the five years between 2007 and 2012, clean technology grew 13.8 percent nationally, according to statistics from the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. During that time, the overall national economy endured several quarters of negative growth.

In Colorado, clean technology had 40.3 percent growth in the same five years. It grew 36.8 percent in the nine-county Denver area, adding 361 businesses and 5,417 employees.

“Over those five years, it was definitely the fastest-growing industry that we track in the metro Denver area,” said Janet Fritz, director of marketing and technology for the Metro Denver EDC.

Denver and the state work together to attract clean technology companies, Fritz said. She was in Chicago this week at a wind-power trade show.

Policy is a bigger part of the equation. When the Legislature approved a standard in 2010 that requires Colorado’s investor-owned utilities to get 30 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources by 2020, it served as an invitation to the industry, Fritz said.

But Colorado Springs Utilities and rural co-ops haven’t been required to meet the same threshold. CSU is only required to get 10 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, a benchmark it has already met.

On May 1, the Senate and House sent a bill to Gov. John Hickenlooper requiring rural co-ops to get 25 percent of power from renewable sources by 2020 — if he signs it.

What about the Springs?

Could clean technology be an economic driver for Colorado Springs? The sector has not come up frequently in discussions about economic growth opportunities here. Fred Crowley, economics professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and former head of the Southern Colorado Economic Forum, hasn’t studied it.

Utilities has helped the Air Force Academy install solar and supported the pilot program for the community solar garden project. CSU offers one of Colorado’s most competitive rebates for solar, according to installers.

But the recent reversal on solar gardens sends the wrong message, Amster-Olszewski said.

Other cities and states have opened up solar garden programs. He planned to keep the SunShare headquarters and its 15 current employees here, opening satellite offices in other communities. But that might change if there’s no local support for his business, he warned.

“We want to be here,” Amster-Olszewski said. “But this is really a policy decision, up to the elected leaders to decide if they want people like us here. And right now I don’t feel like they do.”