Known for being one of the best places in the U.S. for sun, Colorado has hit a potential gray patch for solar thanks to a decision by its largest utility, Xcel Energy, to seek a 47 percent cut in the subsidies it provides through its Solar*Rewards program.
Given the darkness now hanging over the future of small-scale solar in Colorado, it’s perhaps appropriate that clouds blanketed the sky and spit snow during a rally held this past Friday on the steps of the State Capitol to protest Xcel’s proposal.
Several hundred solar industry workers and solar advocates ignored the cold temperatures and decidedly non-sunny skies to attend the rally, sponsored by the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA).
The general consensus: Xcel’s decision to cut its rebates was too sudden, is too drastic, and will irreparably harm one of the fastest growing industries in the Rocky Mountain state.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is expected to consider Xcel’s request to slash its Solar*Rewards rebates – which are funded by Xcel ratepayers – sometime in the next 30 to 60 days.
Market stability needed
“We are not looking to be able to have exponential growth and just fall off a cliff. We want market stability,” COSEIA Executive Director Neil Lurie said in a short speech to the cheering crowd of about 300 people.
Lurie’s thoughts we’re echoed by other solar professionals.
“We need to continue the rebates and not have such a precipitous drop. It’s really the backbone for the industry,” said Justin Kushik, a sales representative for Boulder-based Simple Solar who came to the rally. “It’s something that really needs to continue and then slowly reduce the amount of rebates. It has to be a slow process, it can’t be a quick one.”
Cary Hayes, director of business development for REC Solar, agreed.
“It’s that uncertainty that kills our business,” said Hayes. “When we don’t know what the rebates are going to be and we don’t know what the future holds, that presents problems logistically for us.”
Stuart Barwick, marketing manager for Bella Energy, criticized a rebate structure which puts utilities rather than a neutral third party in charge.
“It’s a conflict of interest when their competition is dependent upon them (Xcel) for setting the rules of the program that governs whether or not we can exist,” said Barwick.
Solar jobs on the line
The state solar industry has said that if Xcel’s request to reduce its rebates from the current $2.01 per watt to $1.25 per watt is approved, thousands of jobs will be lost and the solar industry in Colorado – one of the brightest solar stars in the U.S. right now – will collapse.
“In a time where jobs have been tough to create, we’ve created over 5,300 jobs here and we hope to continue that,” said Barwick, one of a large crew of orange-clad representatives from Bella Energy at the protest.
While the skies were gray and the long-term outlook for solar in Colorado uncertain, there was also plenty of optimism about the future of solar in Colorado – and in the U.S. as a whole.
“We have come too far in the last few years to see those (solar) jobs go away,” Lurie exhorted the crowd.
Coloradoans want solar growth
Kushik, Barwick and Hayes seemed equally determined.
“It’s a little bleak right now, but I think we can turn this around,” said Kushik. “We just need the support of Coloradoans and Americans in general to really push renewables forward and for people to really see the importance of energy independence and a clean energy future.”
Those interviewed expressed plenty of optimism about solar nationally.
“On a national level, we’re doing all the right things,” said Hayes. “Solar is growing 60 to 70 percent a year in this country. As we get sustained, higher fossil fuel prices – which are going to happen -- clean energy and solar get more and more interesting from a cost standpoint, and obviously the environmental benefits are tremendous.”
Like Kushik, Hayes invoked the desires of the people of Colorado in arguing against Xcel’s attempt to lower its rebates.
“Hopefully, the legislators get the clear message that the voters of Colorado started this with Amendment 37 back in 2006. The voters wanted clean energy in this state. This should send a clear message to legislators that we can’t allow Xcel or other large utilities to monopolize the solar industry when the voters specifically said they wanted clean energy,” said Hayes.
Barwick cited Colorado’s excellent geographic solar climate as a strong motivator to push back against Xcel’s proposal to lower its rebates.
“We have some of the best solar resources on the planet. It would be a crying shame to let those resources go to waste,” he noted. “Countries like Germany have invested significantly in solar. It provides a significant portion of their power -- yet they get the average solar irradiance of Seattle. If it can work for Germany, it can definitely work for us.”
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