Solar partnership with Aspen isn’t all sunny
September 23, 2009
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council agreed Tuesday to move forward with a plan to allow a private company to install solar panels on the Yellow and Red brick buildings, providing reduced rate and energy consumption opportunities for city electricity customers.
Although a lot of details need to be hashed out, council members were supportive of the possibility for the city to partner with Carbondale-based Clean Energy Collective (CEC), and enter into a perpetual lease at no or minimal cost to the for-profit company.
However, on its face, the proposal appears to benefit a private company at public expense, said Mayor Mick Ireland, who voiced his skepticism on a number of fronts, including how much CEC stands to profit from such a deal.
Ireland took issue that the council wasn’t provided with financial analysis by city environmental officials, which introduced the concept in a memo before Tuesday’s presentation.
He also questioned why the long-term plan of building affordable housing on top of the city-owned buildings wasn’t addressed and how solar panels being installed there could preclude future decisions.
Deciding anything without those two issues addressed is bad public policy, Ireland noted.
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“I’m a little disappointed that those two policies aren’t recognized,” he said.
Phil Overeynder, the city’s utilities director, said a full public review process will be needed before the installation of panels are approved, or a lease is signed. It’s then that all of the concerns of council and community can be vetted out.
Paul Spencer, who represented CEC in front of the council, said the panels can be easily removed if affordable housing is ever built as second stories to either of the buildings.
The goal of the partnership is that the rooftops provide a single source site for solar panels, which would be owned by customers of Aspen Electric, the city utility company. Those rate payers also would be members of a co-op, set up by CEC.
Spencer said it’s a way to serve city electric customers who want to offset their current energy consumption with solar PV but can’t because their properties aren’t suitable for solar exposure.
“Residents get the same benefit as putting a solar panel on their property,” Overeynder noted.
The panels would stand about 10 feet tall on the rooftops and face south toward Aspen Mountain.
Ireland said during the public review process, neighbors may take issue with the impacts the solar panels would have on the neighborhood.
Spencer recognized that concern.
“Obviously there would be aesthetic impacts to these two buildings,” he said.
The solar panels would be maintained by CEC and provide solar PV-generated electricity to offset the co-op members’ personal electric consumption through lower rates, tax credits and rebates.
Ireland and Councilman Dwayne Romero said they want to make sure the partnership doesn’t allow energy hogs to continue to consume at high rates and then use the program to offset their consumption by buying into the CEC co-op to receive other benefits.
“We don’t want to be acting as an enabler for inefficient use,” Ireland said.
Spencer said in the first phase, CEC plans to provide 800 megawatt hours of electricity annually with the panels, amounting to a $2.4 million investment. Future phases could cost another $4 million.
The collective solar panels is one component in furthering the city’s goal of reaching a 100 percent electric grid and having a carbon neutral utility. Currently the city utility is 75 percent renewable.
Spencer said CEC’s solar panels could bring the city utility to 81.6 percent renewable when all phases are complete.
With economies of scale and local incentives, the cost of the installation of the panels can be reduced by as much as $3.50 a watt for co-op members. The current average cost for a private system on personal property is about $7.50 a watt.
The city government would not incur any costs related to installing or maintaining the solar panels.
“… It is an ideal arrangement as it relieves the city of Aspen and the electric utility of liability, installation costs, and maintenance costs while still providing an affordable solar PV model,” according to a memo from city officials to the council.
Alternative sites within Aspen Electric’s service area that CEC looked at were Obermeyer Place and Aspen Square condominiums.
Spencer noted that the Yellow and Red brick buildings are preferred because they are low and fully exposed.
“They are better than all the other buildings in town,” he said.
Romero said although more analysis needs to be done, he’s supportive of the concept.
“It’s got great potential,” he said. “My net take on it is positive.”
While Spencer said CEC is ready to move forward quickly, the council said not so fast. Analysis needs to be done on what the neighbors think, as well as determine potential impacts to the historic buildings and what the panels would do to future affordable housing plans. Financial questions also need to be answered, council members agreed.
“I’m not there yet,” Ireland said, adding the concept is “brilliant.” “I need to know where the money is flowing.”