30 july 2017

Colorado’s top oil-producing county retools to make solar development easier

Green energy rush brings large-scale solar arrays to Weld County, aided by new planning rules
By Ethan Millman | | The Denver Post
PUBLISHED: July 30, 2017 at 12:01 am | UPDATED: July 30, 2017 at 12:44 am

A major transformation of a 174-acre agricultural property in southeast Weld County is taking place. Columns of solar panels are sprouting from the landscape, against a backdrop of 15 oil wells that are drawing their last barrels of oil before they are decommissioned.

By November, this former turkey farm near Platteville will be a fully functioning, 16-megawatt solar farm, one of several utility-scale solar developments in Weld County.

Although fuel economists think that Weld County’s oil patch will continue to offer drilling opportunities for a few dozen years more, a rush of alternative energy generation signals change in the county that now produces the largest amount of oil in Colorado.

With a limited lifetime for traditional oil drilling, Weld County is doing its part to prepare for the future, easing regulations for solar development and drawing developers to the county to put up utility-scale solar farms.

And the demand is great as utilities try to meet state goals for renewable-energy generation and consumer preferences.

Jerry Marizza, new-energy program director at Brighton-based United Power Cooperative, said that with technology getting cheaper and more advanced, investing in solar is good business.

“Whether or not you believe in global warming doesn’t matter with solar,” Marizza said. “Do you believe in stable electric rates? We’re also getting good pricing — this is feasible. And it does give back to the environment. To me, that’s a win-win. It’s positive on all fronts.”

Solar still remains a small source of electricity in Colorado. Xcel Energy, the largest utility in the state, draws only about 2 percent of its power from solar sources, compared with 23 from wind farms, according to the company’s 2016 community report.

But solar is more versatile, said Rebecca Cantwell, executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association.

“Wind works great on large-scale projects,” she said. “But solar works on homes, it works on businesses and it works on a solar farm.”

In Weld County, businesses and homes with rooftop solar installations generated 15 million kilowatt-hours of electricity last year, Xcel’s community report said.

Still, Weld County commissioner Julie Cozad said she doesn’t see the county weaning off traditional energy just yet.

“I don’t see oil and gas slowing down yet,” Cozad said. “Gas is still reasonably priced and makes up a considerable amount of energy use. Specifically, we’re not out trying to (recruit) these energy sources. They’re coming to us. For wind and solar, we’ve got available land and lots of it.”

Solar developer Silicon Ranch in the past few years has built five Weld County solar farms and is developing two others, including the 16-megawatt project near Platteville and 3.5-megawatt project near Kersey. And Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association and United Power have been buying all the electricity they generate.

Fort Collins-based PVREA, which supplies power to customers in Boulder, Larimer and Weld counties, purchased the rights to three of Silicon Ranch’s smaller solar farms. Among them, PVREA produces enough renewable energy to serve 1,400 homes, about 3 percent of its customers. PVREA spokesman David White said their clients from each county benefit economically from the ranch, but the electricity stays in Weld county.

United Power, a bigger utility, has invested in Silicon Ranch’s larger solar farms. With a 13-megawatt solar farm in Fort Lupton, 6.5 megawatts at Mavericks Solar Farm near Mead and the development of the 16-megawatt farm near Platteville, United Power expects to supply solar energy to about 15 percent of its customers, or about 10,000 households, by November.

By 2020, Colorado utilities must draw 30 percent of their power from renewable sources, and Weld County has positioned itself to land more utility-scale installations by honing its planning and zoning regulations. Among other things, land used for solar farms is not rezoned industrial, so if the systems are someday torn down, the property can return to agricultural uses.

Solar facilities now are categorized as small, medium or large.

Small developments, those taking less than 20 acres of land, no longer need permits to start building. Medium developments are permitted by special review. Large-scale developments follow a process outlined by the state, known as 1041 permitting, that Weld County commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said has been made simpler.

“I think we’re the No. 1 energy county in the state, and I think we’ve put our position to stay that way for the years to come,” Kirkmeyer said.

Both United Power and PVREA would like to invest in more solar farms, but their agreements with wholesale power provider Tri-State Generation and Transmission prevent them from generating more than 5 percent of their own power.

To allow the companies to meet their renewable requirements, Tri-State covers the rest.

With their newest solar farm, United Power has hit its generation limit. But Marizza, who would like the utility to generate even more electricity from renewable sources, said United Power is planning to lobby Tri-State for permission to bump up to 10 percent. Barring an increase, Marizza said the utility is contemplating investing in battery banks to store solar power.

Marizza said Weld County, through careful planning and input from both traditional and renewable energy providers, has redefined its role as an energy hub in Colorado.

“To me, they really wanted everyone’s opinion,” Marizza said. “They came up with reasonable guidelines and really took into account everyone’s concerns. I think they’re one of the first counties I’ve seen to take a good look at energy.”

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