TOP OIL PRO­DUCER WELD COUNTY ALSO EM­BRAC­ING SO­LAR

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

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ethan Mill­man

Ama­jor 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 largescale 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 13megawatt 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 in the agri­cul­tural zone. Medium de­vel­op­ments are per­mit­ted by spe­cial re­view. Largescale 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 Tris­tate 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 Tris­tate 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.”

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

A so­lar farm takes shape not far from Love­land. Nashville, Tenn.-based Sil­i­con Ranch started con­struc­tion last month on two so­lar ar­rays in Weld County that will pro­vide power for Poudre Val­ley Ru­ral Elec­tric As­so­ci­a­tion. The work should be com­plete in De­cem­ber, and it could start send­ing power into the grid soon af­ter.

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

This so­lar farm tak­ing shape not far from Love­land could by pro­duc­ing elec­tric­ity for ru­ral cus­tomers of Poudre Val­ley Ru­ral Elec­tric As­so­ci­a­tion by De­cem­ber.

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