Colorado CPUC Says No to Distributed, Community Solar

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission, in a decision reminiscent of the mythological Zeus’s thunderbolt, said no to Xcel Energy’s proposal to use its Solar Connect program to establish community solar projects.

Community solar, also known as distributed solar, is a program whereby utility company ratepayers can opt into solar power by investing in a “farm” of solar panels (often on public land) which sends electricity back into the grid for common use.

Solving Solar vs. HOAs

This form of participation in clean, renewable solar energy is highly attractive to renters, condominium owners and townhouse dwellers, who are often prevented from altering the exteriors of their living spaces under Homeowner’s Association agreements, or HOAs.

Fortunately, these balky and outdated HOA documents are being revised or revoked in cities, counties and states across the U.S. Unfortunately, revocation and permitting often come at considerable cost – costs which could have been prevented by the Solar Opportunity and Local Access Rights Act, or H.R. 1598, which failed in the 112th Congress and will no doubt suffer a quiet burial in the new, Republican-dominated 113th Congress.

Homeowners installing solar panels on their roofs or property under net metering programs also participate in distributed generation, though less efficiently than via centrally located solar farms. This definition, according to ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), is the commonly accepted one, though New York State’s Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) would prefer to see the practice – if not the definition – limited to a more useful size, preferably one megawatt (MW) or greater (a level at which solar integration costs are more easily accommodated).

PUC Cites Xcel Program Redundancy

But enough backgrounding. The PUC’s primary objection to Xcel’s proposal is that there are already programs in effect capable of achieving the same goal, namely allowing greater ratepayer involvement in renewable energy programs regardless where they live. Commissioners cited both net metering and community solar gardens as examples.

Moreover, the PUC ruled, the lack of consumer demand, and the fear that the program would end up unfairly subsidized by ratepayers not involved in solar energy, were sufficient reasons for a negative vote. As was the less obvious but perhaps more financially relevant evidence of competition with Colorado’s solar installation companies.

Quoting Richard Mignogna, a former staff member of the PUC and current head of Renewable & Alternative Energy Management LLC, Xcel Energy also failed to:

  • Specify anticipated program profits
  • Incorporate the program in its 2015 Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) filing
  • Wait for a ruling on its net-metering policy

PUC Hints No More Submissions before 2015 ERP Filing

In fact, according to Mignogna, the PUC’s chair, Joshua Epel, saw the premature introduction of the program as more of an annoyance than anything, and made it clear he did not want to see the proposal again until the 2015 ERP filing. The final decision took a mere 20 minutes of murmured collaboration.

Opponents heaved a sigh of relief. Their concern was that the program, if and when put into effect, would involve the kind of clever bookkeeping that reportedly allowed Xcel’s Windsource program to collect more money than the actual kilowatt-hours produced.

Or, as Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association Executive Director Rebecca Cantwell noted: “Solar Connect, as proposed, just had too many unresolved issues.”

Ouch.

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