Shedding a little light
City's recent solar accolades highlight behind-the-scenes efforts on renewables

Shedding a little light

Solar panels, like the ones out by the Twin Buttes neighborhood, are popping up more and more on Durango's homes and businesses. In the coming year, Durango officials have plans to figure out how to add them to city facilities./File photo

Tracy Chamberlin - 12/21/2017

Without solar panels gleaming on the roof of City Hall, it may not seem like local officials are making progress when it comes to expanding their renewable energy portfolio. But, it turns out, they’re not only making strides, city officials are earning national recognition for their efforts.

“It’s good to show the city is making progress toward its renewable energy targets,” Durango’s Sustainability Coordinator Imogen Ainsworth said.

The city recently earned a silver designation from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SolSmart Program for supporting and promoting solar generation. It also earned a spot in a training program that teaches city staff how to add more renewable energy to its portfolio.

SolSmart, which is funded by the DOE’s SunShot Initiative, recognizes communities for making access to solar energy more efficient and affordable for its residents.

Essentially, cities and towns like Durango can earn points by reducing the cost of solar permits, helping residents and businesses navigate regulatory hurdles, and helping to support the local solar marketplace.

The points-earning positives for Durango include the cost for a permit, its solar “cheat sheet” and flexibility in the city code.

First, the permit for installing solar panels on a home in the city is just $20. It’s been that low for some time, Ainsworth said, falling well below the state’s suggested $500 maximum.  

Second, the city recently updated its permitting check-list. Like a cheat sheet, it breaks down the permitting process for residents and is meant to make adding solar that much easier.

The city has also improved its code over the years to include flexible solar regulations, so residents aren’t deterred or hindered by regulatory speedbumps. These changes to the code – as well as the city’s other governing documents like the Sustainability Action Plan and Comprehensive Plan – are meant to encourage local production of renewable energy.

Designations under the SolSmart program are bronze, silver or gold. Durango earned silver, but it’s just the beginning. Ainsworth said the city is definitely going for the gold.

The city has more than enough qualifying points to earn a gold designation, it only needs to finish a review of its permitting process to make it official. It will likely happen in the next few months.

The other high-light for the city’s Sustainability Department is acceptance in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Training Program. The NREL, which also falls under the Department of Energy, accepted Durango and 49 other communities from a pool of almost 100 applicants across the country.

The five-month training program doesn’t cost Durango a dime. It’s an online and phone-based course intended to help city officials figure out how to actually get solar panels on the roof of City Hall – or any other city facility.

Ainsworth said she’ll be taking all of the classes for the program, and other city employees will be able to join in on the ones that best suit them.

The hope is to get closer to the city’s goal of generating 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, a goal the City Council adopted in 2015.

For some residents, though, the “25 by 25” goal isn’t enough. In October, a group of about 900 residents and more than 100 area businesses signed a petition asking the city government to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

The day after the petition was delivered, council members had a pre-planned meeting with La Plata Electric Association’s Board of Directors.

Durango Mayor Dick White said some interesting points came out of that discussion, including the possibility of microhydro from the city’s water system. Like a dam and reservoir, this type of power generation uses energy from flowing water to produce electricity. But unlike those larger systems, this one is small and has much less impact on the environment. For example, a limited amount of water from a flowing river can be diverted to a turbine or water- wheel, then right back into the river. These systems, un-like their larger counterparts, typically generate just enough energy to power a large home or small farm.

“The challenge there, and across the board, is that LPEA has to be able to accept the power,” White said.

Not only does the infrastructure need to be in place to carry the power – regardless of what type of renewables the city’s looking to use – but the room for renewables in LPEA’s contract with their power supplier also needs to be there.

Under LPEA’s current contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, its wholesale energy provider, the coop is required to buy at least 95 percent of its power from Tri-State. The other 5 percent can come from locally generated renewable sources.

Unfortunately, the coop is just about tapped out on that 5 percent cap.

A heat-capture facility near the Durango airport, which opened in 2007, generates about 4 percent. Other contributors include hydroelectric facilities, community solar gardens and the most recent addition, a 1,000 kWh solar plant near Oxford built by the Southern Ute Tribe. One of the unknowns in LPEA’s renewable portfolio is excess net metering, which is the extra power produced by solar installations or other renewables.

When a residential or commercial solar project produces more energy than is needed, they can sell that power back to LPEA. This power goes toward that 5 percent.

It all adds up, eventually leaving little wiggle room for future renewable projects.

Of course, another piece of the renewable puzzle is cost. As part of the NREL Training program, Ainsworth and other city employees will get the tools they need to navigate all of these challenges.

City officials are also moving forward with a feasibility study in the coming year to pinpoint specific sites, identify obstacles, calculate costs and, essentially, help determine the best way to get solar panels on city buildings. Ainsworth said funds have been earmarked for it in the 2018 budget.

White said the community is clearly interested in sustainability, and it is reflected in the City Council’s updated goals. Sustainability and climate change, he said, are among the top five for the current council.

“It is a complicated landscape,” White said. “Every utility in the country is saying, ‘How do we navigate this?’”

With evolving technologies and innovations, renewable generation is constantly reshaping the energy marketplace. In the coming years, the challenge for City Council and the LPEA Board is navigating the changing landscape within the confines of their existing contract, all while supporting and expanding local renewable energy.

“I would love to join other mayors in signing the 100-percent renewable pledge,” White explained in an email. “But I see charting a path to meeting the goal as more important than a largely symbolic gesture.”