Phil Castle, The Business Times
Heidi Ihrke describes the development of the solar energy industry in terms of a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Solar is on the brink of winning,” said Ihrke, co-owner of High Noon Solar in Grand Junction.
As the cost of solar energy systems falls and the price of electricity provided by utilities rises, solar energy becomes a more affordable and viable option, Ihrke said.
That’s why High Noon Solar is among the businesses that have endorsed an effort to increase solar energy capacity in Colorado by 2030 to 3 gigawatts — roughly the equivalent of installing solar systems on 1 million roofs.
High Noon Solar and Atlasta Solar Center, another Grand Junction solar energy business, joined in a news conference in Grand Junction detailing the Million Solar Roofs campaign.
Lindsey Wilson, a field organizer for Environment Colorado, an environmental group, said Colorado experiences some of the sunniest weather in the United States, yet lags behind such states as New Jersey in installing photovoltaic solar energy systems.
Colorado generates less than 1 percent of its electricity from solar energy. By putting the right policies in place, however, the state can become a solar energy leader, Wilson said. “Colorado’s solar future is bright.”
The Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center in Denver released a report on the potential for increasing the market for solar power and the policies that would be needed to promote development.
According to the report, Colorado enjoys better solar resources in terms of the duration and intensity of sunlight than other states with more installed solar capacity, including California.
In Grand Junction, a 1-kilowatt solar energy system captures enough sunlight to generate more than 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity over the course of a year. The numbers are only slightly lower in such Colorado cities as Boulder, Colorado Springs Denver and Fort Collins.
Colorado also enjoys greater potential to use solar energy to heat water for residential and commercial uses than many other parts of the U.S.
However, Colorado ranked sixth nationally at the end of 2011 in terms of installed photovoltaic capacity per capita.
Empty roofs on homes, businesses and other buildings in Colorado offer ample space for additional photovoltaic and water heating systems.
According to the report, using every available and appropriate roof would generate a combined 16 gigawatts of solar capacity.
Given 18 percent annual growth in the market, a more modest installation on about 19 percent of available roofs suitable for development would increase photovoltaic capacity to 3 gigawatts by 2030, the report states. At the same time, nearly 250,000 residential and commercial solar water heating systems could be installed.
Reaching 3 gigawatts of solar capacity would meet about 8 percent of the anticipated annual electrical demand in 2030, the report estimated.
That’s enough electricity to power nearly 490,000 homes.
Piper Foster, president of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association board of directors, said there are three major reasons for supporting the Million Solar Roofs campaign:
Solar power can play an important role in meeting increased energy demand in that it’s readily accessible, even to people who don’t want to install systems on their homes.
Solar power offers increased energy independence and protection from rising utility costs.
Solar power protects the environment by reducing air pollution produced by burning fossil fuels to generate electricity — along with so-called greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming.
In addition, increasing solar energy capacity in Colorado would bolster the economy, Foster said.
Nearly 270 companies employ a total of about 3,600 people in the solar energy industry in Colorado. Those numbers will increase along with installed solar capacity, she said. “We just see potential in terms of job growth.”
Foster herself works as vice president of marketing and sales for Amatis Controls, a solar power controls manufacturer in Aspen.
The Environment Colorado report suggests eight key policies that would promote an expanded solar energy market in Colorado:
Increase renewable energy standards by requiring utilities to purchase at least 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Expand net metering policies that would require not only utilities, but also cooperatives and municipal power providers, to purchase electricity generated by solar power at retail rates.
Make solar energy a more attractive investment by requiring utilities to work with developers to create long-term contracts to purchase solar power at fixed rates.
Offer incentives to install solar water heating systems.
Renew beyond 2017 state sales and use tax exemptions on such renewable energy products as solar panels, mounting equipment and wiring.
Support the development of solar gardens that allow communities to pool resources to build solar systems and share the electricity they generate.
Eliminate state and local regulatory barriers to the expansion of solar energy.
Establish net zero energy building codes that require the use of solar systems and other renewable energy sources in new construction.
Lou Villaire, co-owner of Atlasta Solar, said customers tell him they want to install solar energy systems to become less dependent on utilities and reduce carbon emissions. But they also expect to save money.
What Villaire describes as a “clean little secret” is that solar energy costs less than purchasing electricity from a utility.
If efforts like the Million Solar Roofs campaign are successful at increasing the use of solar energy, the traditional view of electricity coming from coal-fired power plants will change, he said.
Villaire said that view already has changed for his young son. Asked where electricity comes from, the boy answered: “Electricity comes from our roof.”