2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

New City Council steps into energy debate

Published: May 7, 2013, 8:56 pm, by Monica Mendoza

For a moment it might have seemed that the sun had set on the expansion of a Colorado Springs community solar garden project.

But it’s not over. Although the new council undid at its April 23 meeting what the previous council had done, the new council vowed to revisit electric rates and the topic of renewable energy before August.

Energy — it’s a passionate, personal and political topic. And the Colorado Springs’ six new City Council members, joined by three returning members, already are steeped in the debate. Now, they must decide if the solar garden pilot program gets expanded, and if so, at what cost.

SunShare president and founder David Amster-Olszewski said he wants to be optimistic. his company was the first to build a Colorado Springs community solar garden. But he’s already directed his staff to search for solar markets elsewhere. He’s even considering moving SunShare headquarters out of the Springs if the solar garden program gets shut down, he said.

“I love Colorado Springs and I always thought Colorado Springs would be our headquarters,” he said.

A pilot solar garden program was up and running by Dec. 22, 2011. Under the program, utility users bought solar panels in a solar garden and transferred energy into the electric system. About 400 households subscribed to the program. And there was incentive for them to do it.

The former council liked the program and voted to expand it to add 10 megawatts by 2016.  They also approved a 16-cent incentive per kilowatt for solar users as a credit to their utilities electric bill. Over 20 years, the solar garden program was expected to cost the city $22 million.

But why 16 cents, Council President Keith King asked. He said he wants to know if the city, and the utility ratepayers, can get a better deal. In the eleventh hour of debate the former council heard one solar developer say the cost could be dropped to 13 cents.

But something else bothered King, he said. He believes the former council short-changed the public hearing process to get the electric rate increase approved before outgoing council members left office.

“That was totally a political move,” he said.

“In this case, I just saw ways to do a different process to enhance the way solar is done in this city,” King said. “That’s why I brought it back. I have no apologies for bringing it back.”

Maybe there is a better deal to be made, said businessman Richard Skorman, who has been an advocate for the city expansion of renewable energy programs. But the search now, after eight months of debate and study, for a lower rate per kilowatt would be made at the expense of stability, he said. Deals have been made. Solar panels have been sold. The city has gained a reputation for being the first in the state to allow solar gardens, which would be damaged by delaying or ending the program, he said.

“The train,” he said, “has left the station.”

Others echoed Skorman. Being among the first cities to embrace solar gardens gives the city a certain something something — a desirerability attractive to young people, said resident Felicia Barbera.

Amster-Olszewski, a Colorado College graduate in his 20s, said solar gardens should be viewed as energy improvement, similar to using efficient lighting – costs more upfront, costs less in the long run. The former council approved a three-year roadmap to solar energy sustainability, he said. The council only approved the program for 2013, he said. Years 2014 and 2015 would require council approval.

The local chapter of Americans for Prosperity will be using the next 90 days to wage a campaign against the expansion of the program, said Sean Paige, deputy state director of the organization and former city council member. There are a lot of questions, he said, including how the solar panel companies are paid, the cost to produce the energy and the cost of the incentive program.

“We are looking at this opportunity to revisit the whole issue of renewables,” he said.

No matter how it ends, proponents and opponents already are lobbying city council members, King said. Their arguments are passionate, personal and political.