PUC expert advocates small-scale solar development

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenMarch 25, 2011
Delaying the acquisition of additional solar resources could save ratepayers money and open the door for projects smaller than the 95-mile transmission line proposed in southern Colorado, according to last week’s written testimony from a Colorado Public Utilities Commission renewable energy expert.

Richard Mignogna wrote that there is sufficient capacity in the region’s existing transmission infrastructure to accommodate an increased volume of utility-scale solar energy and that it makes sense to start small and build modularly to gain experience while the costs of solar development come down.

“Given our lack of experience with projects of this nature, why would it not be prudent to construct an even smaller project of this type on a modular basis and expand as we gain experience and as the need arises?” he wrote on March 16. “Overall, the combination of a smaller project with diminishing costs may allow us to gain experience with the technology while carefully managing the rate impact.”

In his 25-page testimony, Mignogna agreed with the PUC’s request to defer its 2007 commitment to acquire 250 megawatts of solar power to its 2011 Electric Resource Plan, citing changing market costs. But he disputed Xcel Energy’s assertion that a key reason it hasn’t acquired major solar resources in the San Luis Valley is because of land owners — like Aspen visitor Louis Bacon — who are fiercely resisting the new transmission line.

“I do not believe that the delay in the SLV-Calumet-Comanche transmission line is the dispositive factor,” Mignogna wrote. “I do believe that the changing market for solar energy, as reflected especially in rapidly advancing solar technological capabilities and manufacturing improvements suggest running another solicitation as part of the 2011 [Electric Resource Plan]. I am also convinced that we should give greater consideration to the modular deployment of smaller scale projects” for renewable energy.

A Colorado Public Utilities Commission renewable energy expert says smaller-scale solar projects are more fiscally responsible than big projects in the current climate of Colorado's energy market.

Mark Stutz, spokesman for Xcel, dismissed Mignogna’s suggestions by saying that the PUC carefully considered similar viewpoints, but it still went ahead and approved the controversial $180 million power line that would run from Poncha Springs over La Veta Pass and through the San Luis Valley. The project — spearheaded by Xcel, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association — was granted a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” approval. But it still must undergo a federal environmental impact assessment and be approved by the four counties of Alamosa, Costilla, Huerfano and Pueblo.

“Some studies estimate that the San Luis Valley could be fully developed to up to 2,000 megawatts of solar generation over the course of the next several decades. The commission clearly believes that without this additional 1,400 megawatts of transmission capacity, development of solar power cannot move forward, not to mention the beneficial reliability improvements,” Stutz wrote in an email.

Xcel maintains that the new power line through the San Luis Valley is needed to shore up reliability.

“A looped system to southern Colorado probably should have been completed decades ago, and it is equally as important as the development of the New Energy Economy,” Stutz wrote. “Best utility practice is to loop a system from different directions, which is exactly what [the 95-mile transmission line] proposes to do. A fourth transmission line to the north is subject to the same potential catastrophic situations as the existing three lines – forest fires, weather events, etc. Stated more simply, it’s not a good idea to put all of your eggs (transmission) into one basket (the northern corridor).”

Cody Wertz, spokesman for Trinchera Ranch, which is leading the charge against a new power line, said Mignogna’s testimony reflects the same conclusions its expert reached: There are alternatives.

“It confirms what our expert found a year and a half ago. And this renewable expert came up with what we think is a viable alternative to a new transmission line," Wertz said. "It expands capacity and develops incrementally instead of taking this overbuild, costly-to-the-ratepayer approach. The only winners in building a transmission line that we don’t need are Xcel and Xcel’s shareholders because they get a double-digit rate of return. Xcel should take his advice and initiate a phased solar energy approach.”


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