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.

A little less talk...

...And a lot more action! Is what we need from the City of Fort Collins. The businesses and citizens continue to lead with action. Unfortunately the public sector is lagging behind. We hear great words, goals, and plans from our City leadership but the action is still lacking. Not that the City is doing nothing. They recently hired an inspector to go through construction permit paperwork to make sure that builders are following the rules. The rebates for commercial efficiency are helping local businesses save money and energy. But we could be, and need to be, doing a lot better.

The talk from leadership demonstrates that they understand the related problems and solutions in our local energy sector. They tend to pat themselves on the back a lot but they don't talk about the failings and opportunities for improvement within the system. This manifests in poor execution of good intention. One example is the On-Bill Financing (OBF) program that CforSE lobbied so hard and long for. Fort Collins Utilities recently decided to effectively end the program before they even implemented it for renters and lower income home-owners. City leadership doesn't want to talk about this. 

FCU's assistance programs are mostly used by people earning greater than the Area Median Income. 7% of your electric bill goes to these programs. The result is that renters and low income home-owners are subsidizing programs that are not practically available to them. The poor are subsidizing the rich. One local building scientist claims that the City is spending 4 times what they need to and getting less than half the desired result. We are spending the people's money making some already pretty good houses a little bit more efficient when we could be spending the same amount of money making really bad houses a lot more efficient. City leadership has not added this to their bragging points.

The Climate Action Plan is a joke. Staff did such a poor job communicating what it is that everyone thinks it comes with a $200 million price tag. Communication is the least of the problems. They study and talk and spend and study and talk and spend. One example is the council approved idea to spend $50,000 studying the feasibility of generating power by burning the Ash trees that are expected to die in the next few years in town. This is an idea that has been proven unfeasible in several better markets. The furnace itself would cost millions of dollars. What do we do with it once all the Ash trees are burned, if they even die to begin with? Most of the Climate Action Plan expense comes from hiring more staff and/or promoting from within without demonstrating results or competency. City leadership doesn't want to talk about that either.

It is beginning to appear that a local non-profit made up of our talented and proven leaders in the business and civic community could do a much better job than our government can do for much less money. I am currently researching this idea and it may become a longer term strategy for CforSE. Stay tuned! 

June 2016 Update

As Fort Collins roles out the Climate Action Implementation Plan the rubber is hitting the road. Already we have had to defend decisions that council made and staff is trying to back out of. In June the city's Climate Action Leadership Team recommended that council not extend funding for the commercial energy efficiency program. This program has the best return on investment of any of the city's efficiency programs. It provides rebates to businesses to change their lighting. It has been wildly successful. It helps businesses reduce cost, reduces the need for Utilities to build infrastructure, provides work to more than 60 electrical contractors, and reduces our energy footprint. It is also something that council explicitly decided to fund in March. 

Staff wanted to defund the program because unexpected costs appeared in other areas of the Fort Collins Utilities budget (rumor is the new Utility building on LaPorte is WAY over budget).  The very "leaders" on staff who are supposed to administer the climate action plan are ready to sacrifice the most effective tools at the drop of the hat. Fortunately Councilman Ross Cunniff was able to think outside the box and found the funding to keep this program going. 

I spoke on behalf of CforSE and the Fort Collins Sustainability Group did an excellent job to make sure that Council recognized the importance of this program and overrode staff's recommendation to defund. This is a victory for citizens and council leadership, and it is  a red flag about the intentions and/or capabilities of the staff leadership team. We will continue to monitor their activities and hold them accountable to executing the will of the council and the citizens of Fort Collins.