Solar power, federal infrastructure funding and Colorado’s renewable-energy future |

Solar power, federal infrastructure funding and Colorado’s renewable-energy future

Judith Kohler
The Denver Post

Changing leaves are reflected in new solar panels above Snowmass Town Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

With a number of environmental groups calling for bolder action by the Biden administration on climate change, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited Colorado on Thursday to promote the investments a bipartisan bill makes in clean energy and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

Granholm’s tour with Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper of a community solar garden in Aurora comes as much of the West is confronting intense drought, record-breaking heat, historic wildfires and shrinking water supplies. Questions are increasing about the Colorado River’s ability to meet the region’s expanding needs.

After a drive around the 40-acre solar garden, which ended with one vehicle getting stuck in the muddy, rain-drenched site, Granholm said the bipartisan bill represents major investments in public transit and infrastructure like bridges.

“All of these basic fundamentals that were negotiated, we’ve got to get that through. And we’ve got to get the second step through as well, and the second step will include things like the clean energy standard, which is very, very important,” Granholm said.

Many states, including Colorado, have standards requiring certain amounts of electricity come from renewable energy.

“Both pieces are very important and both pieces the president is committed to making sure get through to his desk,” she added.

Hickenlooper noted the first bill provides tens of billions of dollars for improving the electric grid.

“When we’re standing out here looking at this incredible harvesting of solar energy, we need a grid. We need a smart grid,” Hickenlooper said.

However, the $973 billion, bipartisan infrastructure proposal omits many of the sweeping provisions for combating climate change included in President Joe Biden’s original $2.3 trillion plan. Biden has said he will pursue many of the economic and environmental goals in a second bill that would be proposed through a specific budget process to get around a potential filibuster.

In June, several environmental organizations sent a letter to Congress saying that any infrastructure package or legislative action on the plan “must prioritize bold, ambitious, and swift measures to tackle the climate crisis and address longstanding environmental injustices.”

Alice Madden, a former Colorado House majority leader and Department of Energy official said although she would like to see more in the bill, “it needs to pass.”

“This is one step. We can’t let up. This is where we start to build the case for the bigger and bolder moves as soon as possible,’ said Madden, executive Director of Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School.

Madden said the bill’s investments in public transit and other infrastructure will have direct impacts on people’s lives by helping to create jobs and address communities disproportionately affected by pollution and the warming climate.

“One of the things that’s great about the bipartisan bill that they’ve agreed to, at least in the framework, is a lot more money … for transmission,” said Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association.

The bill also provides money for public transit, passenger and freight rail, electric buses and charging stations for electric vehicles and $47 billion to help communities cope with disasters and severe weather caused by climate change.

But the scaled-back bill, negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators, doesn’t include funding for tax incentives for renewable energy, including wind and solar projects and storage of the power those produce. Kruger said renewable energy advocates want to see the tax credits extended at 30% given the industry’s increased prices because of continuing tariffs on aluminum, steel and solar modules.

The renewable energy industry appreciates the administration’s focus on increasing the use of renewable energy and cutting the emissions contributing to climate change, Kruger said. “The Biden administration is 1000% better than the previous administration.”

And Colorado is on the right path, Kruger added, with its goals of greatly electrifying transportation and buildings and cutting emissions from 2005 levels by at least 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.

Colorado’s clean energy industry employed 58,182 at the end of 2020, according to a survey by E2, or Environmental Entrepreneurs, a national industry group. Employment dropped nearly 7% during the pandemic, but rebounded 6% from June to December last year.

The community solar garden that Granholm visited was developed by Namaste Solar of Boulder in partnership with Unico Solar Investors and Excelsior Energy Capital. Solar gardens are centralized arrays of solar panels and are alternatives for homes and businesses that don’t have the space or right location for rooftop panels.

Colorado adopted the country’s first statewide community solar program in 2010, but advocates say the state has lagged behind since because of limits on the size of projects and other restrictions. Recent changes to the law are intended to lift caps on the size and location of gardens to expand access to them.

Colorado was 13th in the nation for installed solar capacity, with 1,536.15 megawatts of solar energy installed as of 2020, according to the Department of Energy. One megawatt of solar energy can supply electricity to 200 to 250 homes.

Granholm also planned to attend the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field with University of Colorado-Boulder students who won this year’s DOE Solar Decathlon competition.

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