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CO Residents Battle Power Company Xcel Over Expansion of Rooftop Solar

What’s a sunny day in Colorado worth? Depends who you ask.

On Monday, members of the solar power industry and its customers packed into a Public Utility Commission hearing room before Judge Harris Adams to discuss the value of the power generated by rooftop or small-scale solar energy arrays.

The fact that the hearing was happening at all was a cause for some of level of celebration for many of the people in the room.

At the end of last year, Colorado’s main utility, Xcel Energy, sought to slash the price it now pays residents whose rooftop solar set ups feed power back to the grid. The company now pays 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour. It aims to pay half that price, arguing that the value of the rooftop power being generated isn’t as high as once thought and that the residents of solar-powered homes should pay more to support the infrastructure set up by Xcel that provides power reliability to all, sunshine or clouds.

Supporters of so-called net-metering, the agreement that has Xcel paying homeowners for solar power, say it is vital if renewable power use is going to continue to expand in Colorado.

The debate over net metering has been going on for some time but it heated up last year, when utility companies around the country began to steer away from the policy, viewing expanding distributed power as ultimately bad for business. Critics say the move away from net metering is part of a larger effort by Xcel to maintain contracts with fossil-fuel providers and to capture the growing renewable energy market by shifting solar panels off rooftops and into large utility owned “farms.”

But Colorado is home to a relatively thriving renewable-energy sector and residents mobilized to oppose Xcel’s turn in direction. Last December, some 300 residents gathered in Denver to support net metering. They delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures in support of the policy to Xcel with an eye to influence deliberations of the state’s Public Utilities Commission. They wanted the commission to slow down consideration of the Xcel proposal and open up the process to draw more public input.

The commission agreed. So many here saw Monday’s meeting as both a big win and small first step. The room was packed with solar-power supporters.

“We’re not letting up,” said Margaret McCall at Environment Colorado.

Lee Rayburn, a sustainable real-estate developer, said he recently moved from Arizona to Colorado specifically because Colorado provides better solar-power incentives.

Hilary Pearson, of solar company Sungevity, noted that her industry has brought some 3,600 jobs to Colorado.

Brian Kirsch, a state resident and renewable energy booster, said the time has come to boost clean energy sources the way the country boosted fossil fuel sources for generations.

“When we rig the game against innovators, against entrepreneurs, against the environment, there is only one winner,” he said, “and it is not the people of Colorado.”

Others, like Carly West of the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, worried that the focus on rooftop solar in particular was detracting from a larger conversation about how the largest number of people could benefit from solar in the shortest time frame. She worried that net-metering might slow the production of utility-scale solar which is already competitive with natural gas. 

McCall estimated that 100 people came forward to testify on Monday, the majority in favor of net metering. She said there’s no guarantee that the commission will hold another public hearing and she noted that the face of the commission may be changing.

Early in January, Governor Hickenlooper appointed a new member to the commission, former legislator Glenn Vaad, a Republican who took a lead in the state in representing the interests of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an enormously influential corporate lobbying group that pushes the interests of the fossil-fuel industry.

“Environment Colorado is nervous, to say the least, that Glenn Vaad is a climate denier,” said McCall. “He doesn’t believe in man-made climate change in a state like Colorado which is seeing fires, floods, droughts and everything in between. We plan to work hard with Vaad, assuming he’s confirmed, to make sure renewable energy and progress on climate change is prioritized.”

Vaad’s appointment has yet to be confirmed by the legislature.

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