Making Cents of Solar
An innovative three-way partnership paves way for green power at cash-strapped Colorado State University-Pueblo
When Colorado State University-Pueblo (CSU) first wanted a solar power system, things looked grim. Solar technology is still pricey and CSU, being the smallest university in the state of Colorado, is strapped for cash. But today, it’s also host to a 1.2-megawatt solar power system, the largest in Colorado and one of the largest at any educational institution in the U.S.
“We are not a very wealthy institution,” says Joseph Garcia, president of CSU-Pueblo. “Solar is something we believe very strongly in, but we simply didn’t have the money to build something like that on our own. So we needed to have somebody else pay to build the system and we needed to pay no more for electrical energy when it was done than we were paying before.”
Colorado state law mandates its utility companies to move toward generating 5 per cent of their power through renewable resources, a daunting task without outside help. Solar power veteran BP Solar is always looking to build more arrays, but it needs hosts to provide land and consumers to buy the resulting electricity.
Last year, utility company Black Hills Energy put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) on a project to help meet those state mandates. After BP Solar won the contract, a local nonprofit firm proposed a partnership with a university. Numbers were crunched, and CSU agreed to become a host site for the system, which is set to provide more than ten percent of CSU-Pueblo’s future power needs. The deal worked like this: CSU donated some four acres of land that was otherwise unusable. Black Hills provided $200,000 up front from its solar rebate program. BP Solar paid for the rest, installing a massive solar array on the land. The project went online last January and the company operates and maintains the system, selling the zero-carbon electricity to the university. Black Hills then buys from BP Solar the renewable energy credits (RECs) created by the project—credits it can claim toward its sustainability goals.
BP Solar is as proud of the engineering feat that went into building the project on a scrap piece of land as it is about the partnership that allowed it to work. “This particular project faced more than your average number of obstacles,” says Richard Chandler, Commercial Development Manager with BP Solar. “This plot of land truly had no other purpose.”
When BP came in to build the system, it found out why. The company had to make it work on a 13-degree, west-to-east sloped hillside. It was covered with swales and other topographical challenges and sitting on expansive clay soils.
With changes in moisture levels these soils expand and contract, which can cause severe damage to structures, so smart civil engineering was paramount. Crews from BP Solar smoothed out the landscape and used flexible joints to allow the system to move as the Earth moved.
The specifics on the economics are proprietary and cannot be shared. But, as Chandler notes, “The project receives one payment from CSU-Pueblo for the energy and another from Black Hills for the RECs, and between the two, the economics work for all parties.”
So the school pays for the actual kilowatt-hours produced by the system. Black Hills pays for the corresponding RECs every month, gaining one credit for every million kilowatt-hours produced. “We get the RECs we want, the installer makes a profit, and the host gets the offset on the energy bill at a locked-in, long-term rate,” says Dan Smith, director of economic development with Black Hills Energy.
CSU signed a twenty-year, fixed-rate deal with BP Solar. It expects cost savings in the long run, as the rates it negotiated are lower than those forecast for electricity produced from fossil fuels.
For CSU-Pueblo, this is the beginning of an exciting new chapter. Garcia says the school’s foray into solar energy actually started in 2007, when two solar panels were mounted next to the engineering building. Those provided power to the building, but also fed real-time energy generation data onto a screen that would-be engineers could study and learn from. Following the success of the massive new array, the school is now looking to create a new sustainable energy engineering program.
“If we can train more of our students in solar engineering, we’ll be able to provide them with professional opportunities and provide our community with the kind of workforce that will draw more renewable manufacturers and providers to the Pueblo area,” says Garcia. “It’s about generating power in a way that’s clean and green, but it’s also about providing our students with an opportunity to learn about an energy source that we think is going to be increasingly important to our country in the future.”
That’s a message echoed by BP Solar’s Chandler: “You’ve got people energized about the idea, and they can learn from it. That could be our next pool of engineers that we tap into.”