After nine months of negotiations, plans for a two-megawatt solar array that would have provided 30 percent of CC’s electricity have been cancelled. The plans were abandoned because of unfeasible restrictions on the lease for the land where the solar panels would be installed, including the fact that the lease was for only 20 years (about half of the lifespan of a typical solar panel) and that the city could retract on the lease at any time during those 20 years. Students protested the city’s action on April 11 at a Colorado Springs Utilities center, and there is some sign that these protests have forced the city to make more attempts at providing solar for Colorado College.
“The Board of Trustees approved a $6 million dollar proposal for two megawatts of solar last summer, and we were looking at an 18-month timeframe,” said Ian Johnson, Colorado College’s Sustainability manager. “Part of that is because there is a multiplier in the state of Colorado right now that provides an incentive, so we were trying to get it online by that deadline.” The school had to coordinate the purchase for the land and the use of the panels through Colorado Springs Utilities, which is managed by the municipality of Colorado Springs.” The buyback rates continued to go down during the discussions,” said Johnson. “This took nine months for something that essentially could have taken care of in about a month or two.” The arduousness of the process meant that CC would have earned more through Colorado solar incentives had the negotiations been more efficient.
After the negotiations were over, the terms of the lease did not present a smart business decision for the school. “They wouldn’t budge from a 20-year lease, and it was a revocable lease,” said Johnson. This means that the panels would only be able to occupy the 17 acres at Clear Springs Ranch that the school was considering for the lease for 20 years, and at any time, the city could tell the school to remove the panels completely and give up the lease. About half of the $6 million projected cost of the panels was set aside for construction of the panels themselves. “If you have to take $3 million worth of labor and move it a month after you plug it in, it’s not a good business decision by any means,” said Johnson. After hearing the terms of the lease, the Board of Trustees rescinded the $6 million funding for the panels.
It is somewhat unusual for a city’s utilities to be run by the City Council, and there is some speculation that this organization of power has led to the difficulties in finding renewable energy alternatives in Colorado Springs. “Things were progressing with the project, and then all of a sudden it just wasn’t going to happen,” said Mike Stevens, an intern at Colorado College’s Sustainability Office and a protester of CSU.
“Colorado Springs is unique because its utilities are municipally owned,” said Ben Feldman, another intern at CC’s Sustainability Office and a participant in the protest. “Not only that, but they have a monopoly on electricity in Colorado Springs.” Stevens also pointed out that there is some evidence that some of the council members have ties to gas industries and are unenthusiastic about renewables.
Although CSU was unable to execute these solar panels, after the student protests they started to be more receptive. “After the protests, they said, ‘We heard you, and we’re willing to listen,’” said Stevens. “They came on campus, and three of them and eight students met in Bemis, and we sent up meetings to create an advisory council. Theoretically, they’re really willing to listen.”
Feldman, Stevens, and the rest of the students protesting CSU’s actions are also interested in creating renewable energy within Colorado Springs that goes beyond CC. “What we’re proposing to do essentially is get some sort of interest group committee organized around a big solar array that includes representatives from as many of the higher education institutions as we can find in the area to work on a collaborative project to do a much larger solar array,” said Feldman.
Although there is hope for the future, the loss of the recent solar panel presents a challenge for CC in reaching its 2020 carbon neutrality goal. “It’s a game-changer,” said Johnson. “It sets us back about 18 months.” However, CC also has some other projects in the pipeline, “[The Board of Trustees] approved some funding for some other stuff on campus, which is termed ‘behind the meter’ because we install it behind our own meters on our buildings and offset the building usage rather than selling into the grid,” said Johnson. He also emphasized the importance of student interest in making these kinds of shifts toward renewable energy. “I can talk until I’m blue in the face,” said Johnson. “But unless there is student interest, nothing is going to be done.”