Amid natural gas boom, Rifle taps solar energy |

Amid natural gas boom, Rifle taps solar energy

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
A sea of solar panels stands in an array owned by the city of Rifle, Colo., just east of Rifle, Colo., on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008. Rifle, which is one of the communities in the bull's eye of Colorado's natural gas boom, is turning to the sun to start powering some of the city facilities in the town of 9,000 inhabitants. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

RIFLE, Colo. ” One of the communities at the epicenter of Colorado’s natural gas boom is turning to the sun to start powering some city facilities.

Rifle, about 180 miles west of Denver, is using an array of solar panels to produce electricity for a pump station that draws water from the Colorado River. Two groups of panels that will cover a total of 12 acres on the west side of town will run a new wastewater treatment plant.

Two systems will generate a total of 2.3 megawatts. SunEdison of Beltsville, Md., which is building, financing and running the systems, said Rifle will have one of the largest municipal photovoltaic solar installations in the country.

The project is part of Rifle’s effort to diversify its economy and develop what city officials call an “Energy Innovation Center” on 130 acres of public land. Other proposals for the site include biofuels production and a demonstration project on geothermal energy.

Keith Lambert, mayor of the city of about 8,700, said Rifle’s economy has been driven by energy production, tourism and agriculture. The community lies along the Colorado River in western Garfield County, which leads the state in the number of oil and gas drilling permits issued.

Companies are also researching methods to tap the area’s vast reserves of oil shale. Federal officials are writing plans and rules for commercial oil shale development, still considered several years off.

Rifle recognizes the benefits ” jobs, tax revenue ” the oil and gas industry has produced through the years, Lambert said, and believes there’s potential for becoming a center for other kinds of energy development, too.

“We’re looking at marrying together extractive energy sources and renewable,” Lambert said.

Adding solar power to Rifle’s energy mix is one of the first steps. SunEdison will operate the solar-power systems under a 20-year agreement with Rifle.

The smaller system generates about 90 percent of the power needed for the pump station that diverts water from the river. The other two groups of panels, expected to be installed by year’s end, will provide about 60 percent of the electricity for a new wastewater treatment plant under construction.

Utilities director Charlie Stevens declined to disclose the specific rates the city will pay to SunEdison, but said he expects Rifle to save money “over the long haul.” But saving money wasn’t the only motivation, he said.

“The city’s trying to look at ways to diversify the economy and add jobs,” Stevens said.

Rifle is demonstrating how cities can make the right decisions for their residents and the environment while creating jobs and saving money, said Carlos Domenech, SunEdison’s chief operating officer.

The city has also received a $50,000 federal grant to explore a possible biomass project to convert waste to fuel. Stevens said the first phase of a study by a consultant is nearly finished.

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