Sometimes it baffles me that solar energy wasn’t harnessed for power in an effective way decades ago. I’m stating the obvious here, but the sun is the start of the energy cycle most life forms depend on. Oh, and it is limitless – or renewable, as the kids say – so who knows why this didn’t happen sooner. Despite the first solar cell technically being invented in the 1880s, here we are, 150 years later, finally realizing how to capture the immense power potential of that fiery energy ball. Better late than never.
Thanks to a major new report coming out of Garfield, Pitkin, and Eagle Counties, the Three-County Solar + Storage Study and Action Plan, we know that potential is indeed immense in our regional mountain communities– I mean “provides for nearly a quarter of our electricity consumption” type of immense. A collaborative project team of nonprofits, technical advisors, consultants, and state and local governments conducted extensive research to assess solar and battery storage development potential in the region. These three counties are interconnected via economies, utility service area, and workforce, thus the comprehensive approach to the report was appropriate.
Before we get to the meat of the study, let’s break down the most important concept here: solar and battery storage (referred to as S+S from here on out). We all know the sun is intermittently in the sky. When we have a lot of sun, solar panels may produce more electricity than the grid system needs (oversupply), and when we don’t have enough sun, we may need to rely on other sources of energy (undersupply). Connecting a battery provides a place to store that excess energy until it is needed again. Storage is the key ingredient to maintaining grid reliability, flexibility, and stability as more clean energy gets added.
Okay, now that we have S+S cleared up, the study’s main objective was to meet “local, state and utility clean energy targets while maximizing regional benefits” of S+S in the three counties. Those clean energy targets include Holy Cross Energy’s goal of supplying their service area with 100% renewably sourced electricity by 2030, and the state of Colorado’s commitment to the same goal, but done by 2040. Regional clean energy targets coupled with aggressive carbon reduction targets from local governments call for meticulous planning around energy use and production.
Luckily, the tri-county study kick starts that planning process. It looks at our current electricity consumption, solar energy production, and what the fuel mix of our power supply is. Then, it delves into an analysis of community-scale solar (think solar farms) looking at three potentials: how much solar energy the region receives and could use (resource potential); what sort of grid, land use, or system constraints there are to S+S development (technical potential); and regulations, utility policies and programs, and economic competition (market potential) that may affect community-scale S+S development.
After investigations of those three potentials, the report estimates that under current market conditions, 232 megawatts (MW) of community-scale solar, or 420,000 megawatt hours, could feasibly be developed in our three counties. That’s enough power to toast 37,380,000,000 slices of bread, or charge 40,465,784,752 smartphones. Your teenager is going to be so stoked. More practically, that’s enough to power roughly 44,080 homes and meet 23% of the tri-county region’s electricity consumption needs.
“Toast is fun, but show me the money!” you may be saying. If all 232 MWs were installed, the solar piece would cost about $335 million and 5MW of storage would cost about $85 million. Hefty upfront, but, installations would bring $73 million of economic activity to the region, and an additional $3.2 million annually from operations of the systems, property tax revenue, and land leases. Don’t forget the $19 million in energy bill savings and 260 local jobs created.
Other benefits not quantified economically within the study but still noteworthy include carbon emissions reductions, power resiliency during disasters, local energy independence, and if done correctly, agricultural and ecological benefits from harmonizing installation with ethical land use.
In an effort to not let another 150 years pass before something is done with these findings, the report comes with a thorough action plan for local governments, utilities, solar developers, nonprofits, and landowners to accelerate S+S development. Stakeholders across the region were able to provide input to this action plan before its publication, and each recommendation lists the relevant entities that should be involved. The plan addresses financing, capacity building, infrastructure improvements, best land use practices, policies and incentives, equitable rural support and economic transitions, education, and more.
If you remember just one thing from this article, I hope it is that local solar and storage development, not just faraway solar farms, is economically beneficial for our region. We are blessed with abundant sunshine that enriches our lives in many ways. It only makes sense to capture it and make those perks directly available to our communities. Now more than ever, we know exactly how to do it.
To learn more, please visit the study page on the Western Colorado Clean Energy Network website. The Network is a new collaboration of stakeholders, including Walking Mountains Science Center, interested in accelerating the community, economic, and environmental benefits of clean energy. If you’re interested in seeing the potential your land holds for S+S development, explore the complementary online toolkit.
The study comes from the synergistic work of local nonprofits CLEER (Clean Energy Economy for the Region), CORE (Community Office for Resource Efficiency), and Walking Mountains Science Center, as well as contributions from technical advisors from National Renewable Energy Laboratories, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and local utilities.
Questions? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claire Kantor is a Climate Action Collaborative associate at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. The Climate Action Collaborative is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Eagle County 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.