Solar on Open Space?

October memo to council about energy development on Fort Collins Open Spaces and Natural Areas.

**correction in comments below

Solar panels belong on parking lots and rooftops not Natural Areas and Open Spaces! In October city council received a memo concerning proposals to develop wind and solar resources on Fort Collins Natural Areas and Open Spaces. Fort Collins Natural Areas director, John Stokes expects this to be a "challenging conversation" with the community. I agree. We did not spent hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve land so that it could be developed as energy parks!

 

The memo refers to one specific proposal to put transmission lines across SoapStone Prairie Natural Area. This is a proposal that merits careful consideration. Soapstone was purchased by the City (for $11 million) to preserve the natural and cultural resources of the property. Potential wind resources lay on the other side of Soapstone and it would cost a lot of money to route the transmission lines around the property. So we will have a decision to make, as a community, about those transmission lines. CforSE will stay up to date as this project progresses and keep you informed and ask for your input at the right time.

 

The memo also mentions unspecified proposals to develop solar and wind resources on City owned Natural Areas. This we must not allow! 

Ken is not a bad guy

In August I met with Councilman Ken Summers. Our meeting was scheduled for 30 minutes and went for over an hour. I met with Ken because he is the new guy and we haven't met yet and because people told me that he was sort of the enemy. Terms like "climate denier" have been thrown around to describe Ken.

I think Ken has been mis-understood. He is not a "climate denier". He is a conservative person. He has conservative social and economic values and he values our environment too. He is wary of those he would call "envio-extremists" who don't take into account social and economic considerations. The impressions that some in our community have of Ken and his impressions of them is the result of poor communication.

Ken and I had a long conversation and decided that we like each other very much, but it took some patience and clarifying communication on both our parts to get there. He has said some things and written some emails that are easily misunderstood if you don't know him. For example, Ken thinks that some people think that Fort Collins' climate actions will save the world on their own. He made confusing statements about this that some people have taken as "climate denialism". He is not a climate denier, he just did a poor job of pointing out the reality that we can't save the world on our own. That doesn't mean that he thinks we shouldn't take action. He also points out that we need to consider social and economic implications of climate action. Again, that doesn't mean that he doesn't want to take action. He doesn't have a full grasp of FTC climate and energy goals (but neither does City staff, so...). He does have the wrong impression of the climate activists in town and they do have the wrong impression of Ken. I look forward to working with Ken, to bridging the divide in our town, to achieving our goals in an inclusive way, without labels and name calling. Sustainability is about all of us and Ken and I can work together to achieve our goals.

Here's Ken's response to his constituents about our Solar Rent Your Roof campaign:

Thank you for your feedback and support of Fort Collins considering leasing roof tops for solar energy. This is an idea that I have considered for a number of years as a good approach to meeting renewable energy standards. I am pleased to learn that there has been some progress in various communities to utilize this approach. I look forward to bringing a request to staff to consider this as an important approach for our solar energy program. Your continued interest and support will be most helpful.

Rent Your Roof to Solar

The idea of "Solar Rent Your Roof" (now taking suggestions for a better name) sprang from the realization that Fort Collins' solar policy is Old and in the Way (no, not the Jerry Garcia band). Our solar policy hasn't been substantially changed since inception in 2008. If you buy solar for your roof, Fort Collins Utilities will give you a rebate and pay you for what your panels generate. This excludes large segments of our population from participating in the solar economy while at the same time charging everyone to pay for the benefits of those who can go solar. As more people get solar Fort Collins won't be able to afford the current high payment system. This system worked well for the "early adopter" stage of solar technology but now it is time for a new addition. The Fort Collins solar program Ain't Broke, But it's Badly Bent.

One day Hank and I were brainstorming how to expand solar in a socially equitable and economically responsible way. The obvious answer is for the utility to own the solar panels. The utility can get the best price and quality, and everyone pays equally and gets the same benefit. There a few large tracts where a utility solar array could be installed near Fort Collins: The landfill, the old and new airports, Rawhide power plant. We certainly want to use these areas but to go much bigger would require using land that has other value. 

Fort Collins has already taken land out of agricultural production to put up solar panels (north of Vine, west of Taft). We don't want to do that, not when we have 2.5 sq. miles of available roof space in town, and that doesn't include parking lots. 2.5 sq miles is the size of six CSU campuses. So how do we utilize this space in an economically and socially responsible manner? The current program only works for owner occupied buildings so that rules out almost all of the commercial space and 40% of the residential space. Property owners also have to buy the solar panels. That puts up a financial barrier. And your solar ownership is currently limited to no more than 120% of your annual electric use. Those limitations shrink our potential 2.5 sq miles by 80%. We can remove all of those barriers if the utility simply rents roof space and installs their own panels.

With the Solar Rent Your Roof program anyone (with a good roof or parking lot for it) could rent their space to Fort Collins Utilities (FCU). The lease would have to be long-term, 25 years, and transferable to new owners. FCU would need roof access for cleaning and maintenance. That's about it for requirements. The amount of the rent check would depend on the square footage rented. The owners of a large warehouse or strip mall might make a pretty penny. The average rental home might bring in $20 a month. Alas, this is not an original idea, several utilities around the country are currently doing similar programs.

FCU would benefit by retaining control of electric generation and paying less than purchasing or leasing virgin land or paying solar owners for the electric that they generate. People would still be allowed to buy panels. The current program doesn't have to be replaced (but as is, it isn't sustainable in the long term). Employment is the local solar industry could skyrocket to meet demand. Contractors would bid on jobs much like they do now but would be dealing with FCU which would provide a greater level of quality control and simplify the contracting process. This can be a win for FCU, a win for property owners, a win for contractors, and a win for the overall community. 

That's why we asked City Council to direct FCU to research making this happen in Fort Collins and that's why council agreed that this is a good idea. Now we don't want to be Hard Hearted, but we can't allow FCU to be the Great Pretender on solar policy (Garcia fans get it :-) We need to hold them accountable to delivering a quality product and that is why CforSE will continue monitor progress and hold toes to the fire when need be.

Council hears your voice and directs action

Our canvassing team has gathered over 400 letters to council this summer requesting that council direct City staff to research a "Solar Rent Your Roof" program (more). On Tuesday Sept. 19th I went to council to present your letters and make our request. You can watch my short speech (90 seconds) on the City's video (25min 15sec into the show). 

Councilman Ken Summers introduced our request during "other business" (from 2:08:00 to 2:16:00 on the same video). Ken joked about this being his idea years ago. He said that the idea is "worthy of study". He mentioned his support of local renewable energy projects versus City support of out of state projects. And he mentioned that renting roof space is more socially equitable than the current system (more about Ken).

Councilman Ross Cuniff showed support and a recognition that this can really help landlords/tenants to get solar. Council Bob Overbeck voiced his support. Gerry Horak was not present but has shown his support to me in private meetings. Ray Martinez confused this with Solar City and didn't voice any opinion about it. Kristin Stephens didn't say anything. Mayor Wade Troxell voiced support but may have given staff an opportunity to delay by rolling this project into longer-term plans. He did direct Darin Atteberry (City Manager) to develop a "scoping paper". 

Staff expects to come back to council in January with a report. We will remain vigilant to see that staff takes this seriously and develops a scoping paper within a practical timeline. 

Update on solar campaign

Fort Collins’ Solar Policy is Old and in the Way

The current Fort Collins residential solar policy was adopted in 2008 to meet state renewable energy requirements. Back then solar cost more than twice what it costs now. Utilities were not pursuing solar in any real way and homeowners needed large rebates to be enticed to put solar on their roofs. It was an “early adopter” market, only hard-core fans were doing solar in Fort Collins.

The solar market has changed dramatically! Solar panels are now a profitable venture if you have good roof space and the capital to invest in solar.  You will need about $10k - $14k to meet your household energy needs with solar, but solar adds to home value and over 25 years your panels will generate over twice what they cost.

This is good news, but Fort Collins is still spending ratepayer money on solar subsidies. Everyone pays for the subsidies but only homeowners with upfront cash and good roof space can get the subsidies. That is a regressive tax on ratepayers. It also limits our community’s solar potential to only those with investment cash.

Fortunately there is a better way. A few utilities around the country offer to rent space on their customers’ roofs to put up utility owned solar panels. The utility gets the power and you get a small check or discount on your electric bill. This is especially attractive to landlords and commercial spaces. We are asking Fort Collins to explore this option. Another option would be for Fort Collins Utilities to offer low cost financing for rooftop solar. Both of these options would expand solar access in town and eliminate the need for the subsidy. Fort Collins Utilities should also build their own “solar parks”. This makes sense in a lot of cases but we don’t want to cover valuable land with solar panels when we have so many roofs and parking lots that could be used instead.

Fort Collins needs to change the solar policy, but this isn’t going to be easy. It will require a lot of research, development, and execution from Fort Collins Utilities staff. Then there is the “inertia to change” factor, this is a government agency after all. Our City leaders and employees tend to be content with things the way they are until people start pushing for change.

That’s where the citizens come in! First we need to get the City to explore the possibilities. Next we need to prod them to go through the effort of change. After they make the change we have to hold them accountable to doing the job right. City council should be doing this, it is the job they are elected to do. That is why we are advocating for a strong city council. Until that happens it is up to the citizens to hold our City employees and leaders accountable. You can be a part of the solution by writing a quick note to Fort Collins City Council.

Modernizing the Fort Collins Solar program

 

Modernize the Fort Collins Solar Subsidy program.  The current solar subsidy program was adopted from an Xcel Energy program in 2008 when the state required Fort Collins Utilities (FCU) to meet a minimum requirement. The idea of any new technology subsidy is to help early adopters make an investment that doesn't pay for itself. We do this because the technology is good for society and early adopters help to bring down the cost of the tech. In this case Fort Collins Utilities offered rebates that were designed to help solar pay for itself over the lifetime of the panels, to break even. It worked!  Now solar pays for itself in about half it's lifetime without the FCU rebates. Now solar can not only stand on its own, but is profitable.

So why is Fort Collins still giving people rebates for something that makes them money? Everyone in town pays into the fund that provides these rebates. If you don't have the $10k in upfront cash to buy panels - too bad, you still have to pay for someone else's rebates. If you rent - sorry, still gotta pay. Even if you don't have access to these rebates, you have to pay for them. At least when solar owners weren't making a profit off the rebates they helped everyone by bring down cost. Now it's just a bonus from the government. The good news that there is a better way to do it. Now that solar is cheap enough utilities can offer financing instead of rebates. This allows every income level to get into the solar market (no upfront cost) and reduces the amount of the subsidies. By only assisting with community accessible projects Fort Collins can further democratize the solar economy. Community accessible solar is a solar project that anyone can buy into. It doesn't go on your roof. You only need to be a FCU customer to participate. There is one of these projects on the corner of Riverside and Mulberry. Some communities allow "solar sharing" where one neighbor hosts the panels on his/her roof and multiple people can invest. This is the kind of creative thinking that we need in Fort Collins.

FTC Solar Meeting

On Wednesday I met with Rhonda Gatzke and John Phelan, Fort Collins Utilities engineers, to discuss options for the planned Community Shared Solar project and the current rate-payer subsidies for solar ownership.  Approximately 3% of everyone's electric bill (in Fort Collins) goes to pay for rebates and administration of the solar program. Some people call this a regressive tax because many people are paying into a program that they can't afford to participate in. There is a way to more equitable way to distribute the cost and net value of solar. It isn't easy to navigate, but we can do it.

Solar panels typically produce electricity for 25 yrs or more and pay for themselves, without rebates, after about 15 years. It may be that replacing rebates with a financing program would work better for potential solar owners and reduce the cost of the program to rate-payers. The target is to provide monthly financing payments that are less than the value of the electricity generated by the solar panels. That way any customer can participate with no upfront cost and at a positive cash flow. 

Clean Energy Collective, the company that built and runs the Riverside community solar project, has reached this target with other utilities. The challenge is to see if we can make it work in Fort Collins with our low electric rates. The planned (2018 or 2019) community shared solar project provides the opportunity to see if we can meet that challenge. I think that Rhonda, John, and I were on the same page about this by the end of our meeting.

The other conversation to be had about Fort Collins solar program is the current limit on solar ownership and how we pay owners for the electricity their solar generates. You are only allowed to have as much solar power as 120% of your previous year's consumption. If you used 100 units of electricity in 2016 then you can own 120 units of solar in 2017. This limit was established because the utility pays you the retail rate, not the wholesale rate, for electricity that your solar generates. It would be too expensive to pay people that much if they generated a lot more electricity then they use. 

The problem is that if you want to buy an electric car and charge it from your solar, or convert your gas appliances to solar electric, then you have to run up high electric bills for a year before the City will let you solarize that increased use.  One option that might work is to keeping paying the retail rate for solar up to 100% of your current consumption and pay wholesale for whatever you generate in excess of your usage. The utility won't be overpaying and solar owners will have a financial incentive to switch from gas to solar electric.

I will be following up with Rhonda and John to see what they can discover about the Clean Energy Collective model and changes to the rebate program. One question for the public is:  Would you prefer to get a 15% rebate for solar panels, or would you prefer a financing plan with no upfront cost and positive cash flow for the life of the solar panels?

From our friends at Fort Collins Sustainability Group

The Fort Collins City Budget and the Climate Action Plan

 

Last year, the City of Fort Collins re-affirmed a climate goal it originally established in 2008, and established a new climate goal that is one of the most ambitious in the world.  Those two goals are to reduce community-wide greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

 

Lat fall, City Council set the City’s budget for the next two years.  This process began with various City departments making “budget offers” last spring, which the City Manager then evaluated and used to develop his “recommended budget”, which was released in early September.  Since then, City Council has been taking input from residents.  Council finalized the budget on November 15th.

 

In 2015, community-wide GHG emissions were 9% lower than they were in 2005.  According to City staff analysis, if all of the offers included in the City Manager’s recommended budget were funded in both the current budget cycle and the 2019-20 budget cycle, community-wide emissions would be about 12.9% lower by 2020 than they were in 2005.  Clearly, considerably more work must be done in the next four years to achieve the 2020 goal.

 

The Fort Collins Sustainability Group (FCSG) has identified three additional offers made by City staff that are NOT currently included in the City Manager’s recommended budget and that would help close the gap between projected GHG emissions and our 2020 goal.  Those offers are 3.17: Trip Reduction and Efficiency Programs, 67.11: Sunday Transfort Service, and 94.1: Wind and Solar Energy for Municipal Operations.  Together, these three offers would help get the community-wide GHG emissions down 14.2% by 2020 if fully funded over the next four years.

 

Offer 3.17 would pay for a study by a consulting firm that would result in incentive programs to reduce motor vehicle use and thereby reduce GHG emissions from the transit sector.  Some of these incentive programs would be “no-cost,” and could be implemented immediately.  Other incentive programs emerging from the study could be funded in the next biennial budget.

 

Offer 67.11 would provide funds to operate MAX, key bus routes, and complementary paratransit service on Sundays.  While this offer is projected to result in relatively low GHG emissions reductions in comparison to the other two unfunded offers, it would significantly increase the usefulness of the public transit system for Fort Collins residents.

 

Finally, Offer 94.1 would dedicate City funds to purchasing renewable energy from the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) to meet all of the electricity needs of all City departments.  This offer needs to be improved by requiring that the renewable energy used in municipal operations come from new instead of existing sources.  If this were done, Offer 94.1 would enable our community to make significant progress toward the 2020 goal.

 

The FCSG urges readers of this newsletter to let City Council members know that the three offers described above are critical to meeting our 2020 climate goal.  Write to council members at CityCouncil@fcgov.com.  For more information on these offers, click here.

 

Kevin Cross is a member of the Fort Collins Sustainability Group Steering Committee.

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Update from Fort Collins Utilities on Energy Score

In 2016 CforSE organized citizen support for an "Energy Score" program to evaluate home energy efficiency improvements and help to quantify value for home sale. Here is the latest update from FCU:

Building Energy Benchmarking Update

·        The new staff member approved by Council to support building benchmarking and scoring is now on board.

·        Staff are currently evaluating software which can support the data management requirements

·        Staff anticipate a phased approach to benchmarking, scoring, and transparency based on building size and sector

·        Initiative planning will continue on an ongoing basis and stakeholder engagement is expected to be focused on Q1 and Q2 2017

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That's one small waste of money...

The City's Biomass Burner Study has been completed. I know you are dieing to hear the result! It was exactly as predicted - A biomass burner is not a practical solution to dealing with the potential impact of the Emerald Ash Borer. In case you haven't heard, the Ash Borer is an insect that is decimating ash trees across the country and is anticipated to arrive in FoCo in a year or two. A biomass burner would have burned the dead trees to create electricity. The City spent $50,000 to recreate studies that have been done in better biomass markets in CO already. One small example of how our City Council wastes $$. The wood could be sold to furniture makers, or firewood cutters, or mulch, or many other applications that wouldn't cost the millions of dollars that the city was considering spending on a biomass burner. They truly missed the forest for the trees on this one.