Coal reigns as king in Colorado, but solar is gaining steam
September 1, 2017
Solar and wind may be all the rage nowadays, but renewable energy has a long haul ahead before it catches up to coal in colorful Colorado.
However, based on recent growth in solar and wind, many of the people who once wondered if renewable energy would ever surpass the electrical output of fossil fuels are now guessing when it will happen.
As big as Coloradans might be on staying lean and going green, people here are less keen on solar power than they are the wind, which accounted for 23 percent of the power one of the state's largest providers, Xcel Energy, produced and sold in-state in 2016.
Per Xcel's own electricity reports, the power company generated 29 percent of its Colorado electricity from renewable resources last year, but solar only accounted for only 2 percent of the company's total in state, or about half of the output of hydro.
Still, exponential growth in the solar industry that's been seen in Colorado, across the U.S. and worldwide has environmentalists abuzz and industry experts clamoring about what might be on the horizon. Last year, more solar panels were installed than in all previous years combined. That trend will continue in 2017, and it's expected to keep up through at least 2018.
"There's this really great analogy I'm stealing from Al Gore," said Jess Hoover, programs manager at the High Country Conservation Center, Summit County's most active environmental advocacy group.
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In 1980, she continued, AT&T commissioned a study to forecast cellphone usage by the year 2000. At the time, researchers projected there would be about 900,000.
"But in fact, they sold 900,000 cellphones in just the first three days," Hoover said. "The actual figure was 109 million by 2000, and today there are 7.8 billon cellphone connections."
To help people better connect with renewable-energy resources, the High Country Conservation Center will host a renewable-energy workshop on Sept. 13 focused largely on solar instillations and wind credits, as HC3's staff brings in a panel of clean-energy experts to walk residents and business owners through the ins and outs of what's become a booming business.
Coal keeps the lights on
Xcel Energy provides electricity to customers in Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Dillon and Frisco. Locally, at least, there is no competition.
"They cover all of the county except for a tiny, tiny tip north of Silverthorne," Hoover said. "It's probably like 99 percent of the electricity service in Summit County."
In its 2016 energy portfolio, a snapshot of the company's electricity supply by source, Xcel reported it generated about two-thirds of all the power it sold nationwide in-house and bought the rest from other suppliers.
Included in the snapshot is any electricity that Xcel "made possible" under its renewable energy programs, which include private solar systems that tie into the grid and, more common, clean-energy credits for people who don't mind paying a little extra to help the environment.
Unsurprisingly, the single most significant source of Xcel's power was and still is coal with the black rock accounting for 37 percent of the company's overall electricity production last year. In order of prevalence, other sources were natural gas (25 percent), wind (19 percent), nuclear (13 percent) and hydro (4 percent).
Far less impactful, solar panels produced less than one percent of the power Xcel sold to its customers in 2016, putting solar at about the same level as burning biomass fuels, which is generally thought to be cleaner than fossil fuels but not carbon-free.
Perhaps more surprising than coal remaining in the top spot is that, in Xcel's power portfolio for just Colorado, the state relied more heavily on coal than Xcel's customers across the country did.
The power company reported that 46 percent — almost half — of the power it produced in state came from coal in 2016.
At that rate, this state depends more on coal than does the Southwest, where natural gas and coal run neck-and-neck, or the Upper Midwest, which gets almost a third of its power from nuclear, according to Xcel.
"Wind energy and solar is still a relatively small chunk of how we produce energy in this country," said Cary Weiner, an energy specialist at the Colorado State University Extension who will be one of the featured speakers on HC3's panel. "But it's growing really rapidly as costs continue to come down."
A bright future
Only 2 percent of Colorado's electricity came from the sun in 2016, a figure that was consistent in both Xcel's statewide snapshot and in numbers released by the Solar Energy Industries Association, widely recognized as the national trade association group representing the U.S. solar industry.
Solar remains a long way from outshining coal, natural gas or wind in the Rocky Mountain state, but according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, in many ways, Colorado stands as a leader.
That's because, according to the SEIA, more than 189,000 Colorado homes are powered by the sun, and the group ranked the Centennial State 10th in solar-related jobs and 11th overall for solar power.
The SEIA notes that Colorado installed 373 megawatts worth of solar in 2016, bringing the total amount of power coming from the in-state solar installations up to 940 megawatts. That figure is projected to climb another 1,681 megawatts over the next five years.
Summit County entrepreneur Eric Westerhoff is banking on it. He's involved in the industry on a multiple levels, including as the owner of Innovative Energy in Breckenridge, a local business that will design, install and service solar-panel systems.
Westerhoff also serves as an instructor for Solar Energy International and works as a consultant, he said, mostly for potential investors in solar projects who are looking to get ahead of industry trends.
"I keep pretty close tabs on the industry as a whole," Westerhoff explained. "In general, there's a couple anecdotes … but we're on this exponential rise of solar being deployed throughout the world."
Westerhoff said his company has installed probably 400 to 500 solar systems since they first started doing it 1992. He didn't want to provide specific year-to-year numbers in fear of giving away his market share to competitors, but Westerhoff would say he's booked "pretty solid" throughout the rest of this year and the future for solar looks bright.
"We can say we've done many installations this year, and it's more than we did all the previous year," Westerhoff said, adding that he expects to say the same about 2018.
In 2016 alone, investments in solar power soared in Colorado, adding $509 million to bring the total up to $2.7 billion in state, according to the SEIA.
According to HC3, here in Summit County, 25 percent of the electricity is generated from solar and wind. Additionally, from 2016 to mid-2017, Summit County installed panels adding 90 more kilowatts in solar energy.
"We don't know how many homes, but a safe estimate is 18," Hoover said via email, adding that HC3 has rebated only three solar projects since 2014, which tells her most of the folks installing solar aren't enrolled in the nonprofit group's Energy Smart program.
"Certainly, on a large scale the country is developing enormous amounts of oil and natural gas," Weiner said, "but we're also deploying renewable energy at really impressive rates."
More options for "average Joes" to get into solar, a small market share and declining costs are all driving the dramatic growth, Weiner said.
"There's a ton of room to grow … and what we're now seeing is not just me and my neighbor putting solar panels on our houses, which is happening at a pretty good clip, but utilities are getting into the game."
In fact, Xcel recently released a new Colorado Energy Plan, which projects jumping the state's renewable energy output up another 1,000 megawatts for wind and 700 megawatts for solar.
"Our customers expect us to provide low-cost power and increase the use of cleaner energy," David Eves, president of Xcel Energy-Colorado, said in a prepared statement announcing the plan. "The proposal could increase renewable energy to 55 percent by 2026, save customers money and dramatically reduce carbon and other emissions."
Of course, cost is a big concern for Xcel, and the company adds this disclaimer: The Colorado Energy plan will "only be advanced if the resulting portfolio of resources reduces, or at least does not increase, the cost" for its customers.
Across the state, nearly 20 cities and towns are looking at committing to renewable energy goals, and at least four Colorado communities have already pledged to go 100 percent renewable in the near future.
Breckenridge's town council recently took up a similar measure and set a goal of having all its town facilities powered by renewable resources by 2025, with wind credits and solar instillations each playing big roles in accomplishing that goal.
It's no secret falling prices have fueled much of the growth in the solar industry, both for private investments and for large-scale solar projects taken on by municipalities, big business and power providers.
In fact, the cost of solar panels has declined more than 200 times from what they originally were when solar first came onto the market after being invented in the 1950s. In the last five years alone, according to the SEIA, the cost has fallen by almost 64 percent.
Generally speaking, it's usually somewhere around 10 years before most people "get their money back," Weiner said of private solar systems, "and that's definitely something people look at, rather than just wanting do something for the earth."
He said the cost of a system can vary greatly depending on a number of factors, but in his experience, it's usually less than the amount someone would spend on a new car.
"I'd say the average cost for a home to offset all of its electrical needs is about $15,000 before any incentives," he said, adding that's just a ballpark number and more important than simply deciding to go with solar is what the owner hopes to accomplish with the system and how they go about installing it.
"One thing I tell people is you don't have to buy a system that's going to offset 100 percent all at once," he said, adding that installations for little to no upfront costs are becoming much more common these days and a 30 percent tax credit can provide a nice boost.
Westerhoff, however, is warning solar-supporters to keep a close eye on what happens in Washington because a proposed tariff on solar panels produced overseas could protect U.S. solar panel manufactures, but it could also increase the cost of solar installations here by as much as 30 to 50 percent, Westerhoff said.
The tax credit could also be in limbo with the current administration in the White House, Weiner said.
Workshopping on it
Solar power isn't without its dark spots. When the sun's not shining, there's little happening in the panels. Also, the location and angle of installation matters more than some might think.
If someone is truly serious about getting into solar, most experts will say the best place to start is with an energy assessment to cut usage.
"I look at it like having a bucket with holes in it," Westerhoff said of the assessments. "Do you add more water to the bucket before you patch the holes? On almost all of our site visits, we recommend an energy audit first."
Still, bringing wind and solar power into a home or business isn't nearly as complex or as expensive as some might think, according to HC3, which will host the free hour-long workshop at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 13 in the Fremont Room of the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco.
The goal is to help people understand how much a solar system could cost or even how these agreements can work for renters. The workshop will feature Weiner and representatives of Xcel Energy, who will walk residents through some of their solar and wind energy options in Summit County. Also, local solar experts like Westerhoff will be on-hand to offer their insight and answer questions.
Following the workshop, HC3 will bring in the owners of electric vehicles to try to convince any would-be skeptics that battery-powered vehicles are a practical and affordable options for mountain living.