Boulder Colorado Charts Course for Energy Self-Reliance

Date: 2 May 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

When is it time to break up with your utility?  Perhaps it’s when they come to ratepayers for $30 million in cost overruns on a “free” smart grid project.  Or when they fail to meet deadlines to propose a new franchise agreement.  Or when they cite national security in an effort to avoid sharing load information.  Or when they crash your office with 9 employees to present their delayed franchise plan.  Or perhaps when the propose raising rates again to keep up with rising fossil fuel prices.

The citizens of Boulder, CO, have put up with a lot from Xcel Energy, the investor-owned utility that spans several states and currently provides the city’s mostly-coal-powered electricity.  So it was energizing to be invited to Boulder by Clean Energy Action last week to share how the city could move forward.  (my presentation below)


The city’s saga began in 2003, when it first began studying the option of municipalizing their electricity system, to have more control over the grid and increase clean energy production.  The city dropped the plan in 2007 when Xcel offered to build a free smart grid network, called SmartGridCity, a program that deployed advanced meters and fiber optic cables to improve information flow on the local electricity grid.  However, with a dubious cost-benefit ratio from the Xcel program and a desire for more clean energy, the city leaders are once again considering their options.

In 2010, the city of Boulder chose not to renew its franchise agreement with Xcel, essentially a monopoly charter that gives Xcel the exclusive right to serve Boulder’s customers for an annual fee.  The citizens of Boulder voted to tax themselves to replace those funds for five years, giving the city time to evaluate alternatives.  They’re taking it seriously.

For one, their current electricity costs keep going up, according to Anne Butterfield of the Boulder Daily Camera:

In Colorado, plunging costs for renewables are furled against the steady upward march of fossil fuels. In March, Xcel filed for an 18 percent increase in the “electric commodity adjustment” (the ECA on your bill) which allows fuel costs to get passed through to customers. This hike would increase a typical monthly bill by about $3 — with a resultant boost to the RESA of only six pennies. Every buck paid to fossils on Xcel’s system leads to two pennies sent to cost-saving renewables.

For another, they’ve already learned about options to dramatically increase the portion of electricity from renewables.  At a Clean Energy Slam, one company proposed providing 50% of Boulder’s energy from renewables by 2014, up to 80% by 2025.  Their planning process has also revealed new ways of thinking about the grid.  Freed from the paradigm of big, centralized baseload coal power plants, they’re looking at electricity from the “top down.”  They start with a load curve, throw in renewables and storage, and then see what gaps need filling, a process that prioritizes renewable energy instead of trying to shoehorn wind and solar into the gaps where fossil fuels fall short.

City officials aren’t just interested in clean, reliable electricity.  They also want to learn more about the potential for generating electricity locally.  While any new energy generator can add jobs and grow the economy, locally owned renewable energy creates job and economic multipliers. 

Local activists are also strongly committed to changing the status quo.  They’re not only looking for ways to green the local electric grid, but for ways for citizens and businesses to finance significant energy efficiency improvements as well as distributed renewable energy generation.

Boulder may end up joining the 2,000 existing municipal utilities in the United States and chart their own energy future or perhaps Xcel will finally bring them an attractive offer.  But by taking the issue into their own hands, Boulder will definitely do better than before.

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Maine’s Community Solar Program

Date: 22 Apr 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Maine’s Net Energy Billing system (2011) allows shared ownership of renewable facilities and virtual net metering. Participants must own a portion of the generation facility. This post summarizes the policy and compiles additional Maine community solar resources.… Read More

Oregon Town Gets a Lot of Solar for a Little Money

Date: 19 Apr 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The upfront cost has always been the biggest barrier to solar PV adoption, and one Oregon town has found an innovative way to help its citizens buy down that cost.

The city borrowed from the sewer account to offer no-interest loans of $9,000 each. The repayment schedule, over four years, is tied to residents’ tax returns each spring, when they receive refunds of state and federal renewable energy tax credits.

All told, Lehman estimates the program will cost the city only $10,000 in lost interest over four years.

While the loan terms are short (4 years), the repayment plan is tied to the state and federal tax credit schedule, essentially allowing interested home and business owners the chance to finance solar directly with those credits, rather than having to put their own money up front.

The loan program spurred over 50 solar PV installations in 2010, in a town of just 16,500 residents.  The residents not only received discount financing, but the city helped aggregate the purchase of the solar panels to get participants a “group buy” discount.  Assuming a system size of 3 kilowatts and installed cost of $6.00 per Watt, the city’s $10,000 investment got their residents approximately $1 million worth of new solar power.

The increase in solar installation activity had an effect even for those who didn’t use the town’s financing option:

Ken Abbott, a retired postal employee, didn’t use the loan program but took advantage of the lower installation prices that resulted from the large number of buyers.

Pendelton’s lesson to cities is that you don’t need a lot of money to make it a lot easier to go solar.

Photo credit: Flickr user chdwckvnstrsslhm

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Community Choice Aggregators Fight to Choose Their Power Provider

Date: 16 Mar 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 1 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Communities in California have been trying to become more energy self-reliant for nearly 10 years, but not a single one has managed to establish a “community choice aggregation” network despite a state law requiring incumbent utilities to “cooperate fully.”

Community choice aggregation (CCA) offers an option for cities, counties, and collaborations to opt out of the traditional role of energy consumers.  Instead, they can become the local retail utility, buying electricity in bulk and selecting their power providers on behalf of their citizens in order to find lower prices or cleaner energy (or even reduce energy demand). Only four states have CCA laws on the books – Ohio, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and California.  Most have only a single CCA; California has none.  There’s a reason.

Incumbent electric utilities aren’t big fans of CCAs.  

In California, the CCA law passed in 2002 but utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) have stymied the development of local CCAs, even sponsoring a ballot measure – Proposition 16 – to require towns to get a two-thirds super majority to create a CCA.  The measure was narrowly defeated (with a 52% vote) despite $46 million spent by PG&E to steamroll local choice.  The ballot measure was only the latest in a series of attempts by PG&E to quash community choice, dating back to the utility’s bankruptcy and $8 billion bailout in 2001-02. 

Advocates are continuing the fight with new legislation to clarify what was meant in the original law when utilities were ordered to “cooperate fully” with communities seeking to establish a CCA.

The CCA difference can be significant.  Ohio’s largest CCA offers customers prices averaging 5% lower than the incumbent utility.  And CleanPowerSF, the CCA certified (but not yet operational) for the City of San Francisco intends to get 51% of its power from renewable sources by 2017. 

You can read more about Community Choice Aggregation in our 2009 policy brief.

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National Association of Counties and League of Cities Ask Congress to Support PACE

Date: 15 Feb 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

February 9, 2011

Dear Members of Congress:

On behalf of the nation’s counties, cities and towns, we urge Congress to support legislation that clearly affirms the right of state and local governments to exercise liens or assess special taxes or other property obligations to protect and improve housing stock for the public good, including the installation of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements, by directing federal regulators to enforce underwriting standards that are consistent with guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Energy for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE).

As you know, the health and vitality of local economies are essential for reversing the national economic downturn. Despite sizable budget shortfalls, state and local governments, in partnership with the federal government, are working to maintain and improve efficiencies in federal programs that support the services that citizens expect governments to deliver. A further challenge, however, is that traditional mechanisms for local finance and revenue, such as sales and property taxes and bond financing, remain difficult to access. As a result, local governments are developing innovative financing programs, such as PACE, that will help neighborhoods realize community and economic development goals even in challenging fiscal periods.

PACE financing programs help property owners finance renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements – such as energy efficient boilers, upgraded insulation, new windows, and solar installations – to their homes and businesses. The PACE program removes many of the barriers of renewable energy and energy efficiency retrofits that otherwise exist for residential homeowners and businesses, particularly the high upfront cost of making such an investment and the long-term ability to reap the benefits of cost savings. Twenty four states plus the District of Columbia have already passed legislation enabling cities and counties to pursue PACE programs.

PACE is not a loan, but instead is built on traditional tax assessments, which local governments have managed for over 100 years. PACE was not designed to increase the risk of homeowners, business owners, lenders, or the financial system, and operates under stringent rules to ensure a net positive benefit to all parties. When fully implemented, PACE programs can achieve significant energy savings and provide positive benefits to the environment.

Unfortunately, rather than incent original solutions such as PACE, the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) determination that PACE energy retrofit lending programs present “significant safety and soundness concerns” effectively shuts the door on an important avenue for financing improvements that would deliver financial and environmental benefits long into the future. This determination is out of step with our nation’s economic recovery agenda and disregards the traditional authority of local governments to utilize the tax code in the best interest of its citizens.

In response to FHFA’s specific concern about the hypothetical risk to the secondary mortgage market involved with PACE homes, as local leaders responsible for investing hundreds of billions in public funds annually, we know well that risk is an inherent part of any investment. However, local governments constantly seek to minimize that risk; in our case, to the taxpayer. We believe that the standards and best practices called for in the Administration’s “Recovery Through Retrofit” report are sufficient to minimize any potential risk posed by the PACE program to both the public and private investments in a PACE home.

The PACE program is an achievement of the intergovernmental partnership to realize national policy goals, namely, reducing energy consumption, that will positively impact the fiscal conditions of every level of government. For these reasons, we encourage you to support legislation that will allow existing PACE programs to continue and encourage additional programs throughout the country. We look forward to working with you to ensure that local governments maintain the traditional authority to utilize the tax code for public benefit.

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Poor Solar Permitting Rules Increase Residential Solar Prices by Up To 20 Percent

Date: 10 Feb 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A new report from SunRun recently revealed that permitting can significantly increase the cost of residential solar PV projects, adding as much as 20 percent to total project costs.  One large solar installer in California has two full-time “runners” whose entire job is dedicated to taking solar permit applications to city offices that require an in-person submission.

The problem of permit costs looms ever larger as solar module and installation costs fall, making permitting an even larger portion of project costs.  The adjacent chart illustrates the cost of permitting for residential solar PV, based on the size and cost per Watt of the project.  SunRun found average permitting costs of $2,500 per project.

Fortunately, there are already best-practice standards for solar permitting from the Solar America Board of Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs), and the SunRun report finds that implementing these practices can reduce permitting costs by 75 percent, to around $600.  The following table, taken from the report, details how the savings can be achieved.  The cost savings can be achieved across nearly every category of the permitting process:

For comparison, the following chart illustrates the substantial difference in the portion of project costs related to permitting when best practices are implemented.


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An update on PACE financing

Date: 5 Jan 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

This update is from an email sent by Renewable Funding’s Cisco DeVries, outlining the hopes for PACE in 2011:

Litigation Moves Forward.  The first Court orders regarding elements of the PACE lawsuits were issued by Judge Claudia Wilken on December 20th.  The orders cover Sonoma County’s request for a preliminary injunction and the Court’s desire for the US Department of Justice to weigh in.  The court has not yet made any decisions on the motions. However, while the judge stated that she was not inclined to require FHFA to affirmatively support PACE at this early stage of the case, she indicated that she was considering whether to order Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to begin a formal rulemaking process regarding PACE. We will certainly pass along any more information as it develops so that the PACE community can be ready to provide detailed comments.  You can also check the website for updates.

Legislation Moves Forward.  While Congress did not take action on the PACE legislation that was introduced in 2010, work is continuing to prepare for the next session.  There are plans for new, bi-partisan, PACE legislation to be introduced early in the year.  Will send another update when this moves forward.

Commercial PACE Moves Forward.  While residential PACE has mostly (but not entirely) been put on hold, a number of jurisdictions are moving forward with commercial programs.  For example, Boulder County recently issued its first bond for commercial PACE and will now be funding the first 29 projects. Sonoma County continues to fund commercial projects and Los Angeles and Washington, DC are just two of the communities planning commercial programs in the new year.  To assist with this effort, the US Department of Energy just released a section of their “Finance Guide” (see chapter 13, drafted by Renewable Funding) to assist communities with designing commercial PACE programs.  Lastly, a report from the Clinton Climate Initiative, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Renewable Funding on existing and planned programs will be out soon.

PACENOW Hires Executive Director. PACENOW hired David Gabrielson as its new Executive Director.  David has extensive experience in public finance at leading firms such as CS First Boston and JP Morgan and is also a town councilman in Bedford, NY, where he worked to establish an energy efficiency and renewable energy financing program using PACE.  He has given the PACENOW website a facelift – check it out.  You can reach him directly at 

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Michigan the 24th State with a PACE Law, Will It Matter?

Date: 15 Dec 2010 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Yesterday Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm signed the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) law, making Michigan the 24th state to enable cities and counties to provide financing for on-site renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements via the property tax system. But it’s unclear how many municipalities will move ahead given the roadblocks facing residential PACE programs … Read More

Distributed Solar Power, Illustrated

Date: 13 Dec 2010 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

With environmental (e.g. desert tortoise) and political (NIMBY) questions raised about centralized renewable energy generation, it’s worth noting that we can generate a lot of power by covering already developed spaces.  See California, where solar PV arrays cover parking lots, providing peak power and soothing shade for the shielded vehicles underneath. Not only are these solar-powered … Read More

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