Aspen lawmaker takes aim at Xcel plan to slash Solar Rewards rebates for home solar systems

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMarch 2, 2011
State Sen. Gail Schwartz, an ardent champion of alternative forms of energy, has scheduled a hearing of the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy Committee today to examine a plan by Xcel Energy to make cuts to its popular Solar Rewards rebate program for home solar installations.

The hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. today in the Old Supreme Court Chambers in the State Capitol Building. Citing a 50-percent decrease in the cost of solar panels between 2008 and 2009 and the growth of Colorado's solar industry by 91 percent in 2010, Xcel has submitted a plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to cut off all new applications to Solar Rewards and slash current rebates from $2.35 a watt to $1.25 a watt.
Solar industry advocates, who rallied against the plan in force over the weekend, say the move could cost Colorado more than 2,000 jobs.

“Colorado citizens have expressed concern about the impact of the proposed changes on the future of Colorado's solar industry,” said Schwartz, a Snowmass Democrat who chairs the committee. “I believe that it is important to provide an opportunity for the committee and the public to better understand the role of the rebates and [renewable energy credits] with respect to Colorado's renewable energy industry prior to the PUC's action.”

Xcel officials argue increased government subsidies and lower equipment costs for small, customer-owned solar systems have reduced the amount of Xcel incentives necessary to spur participation in Solar Rewards. The company argues the lesser rebates still “provide support to the market while investing customer funds prudently.”

“We established Solar Rewards to stimulate interest in installing solar systems on homes and businesses, and to make sure the technology is part of Colorado's energy mix,” said David Eves, president and CEO of Public Service Co. of Colorado, an Xcel company. “The program has been successful in doing that.

“We're increasingly optimistic in our ability to meet the goal for customer-sited solar as required in HB 1001, which [last year] increased Colorado's Renewable Energy Standard to 30 percent by 2020. We look forward to the industry's continued progress so that it can ultimately become self-supporting.”

Xcel, the state's largest utility, took heat last week and early this week for its opposition to a feed-in-tariff bill that would have studied a program of long-term contracts and premium rates for small-scale renewable energy generators who want to sell power back into the grid.

Xcel officials say they will file a Renewable Energy Standard Plan with the PUC this spring that will outline a future of Solar Rewards program “consistent with market conditions.” The company added it will “include a plan for 2012 and beyond, including Solar Gardens.”

Boulder Democrat Claire Levy's “Solar Gardens” bill was passed last session in an attempt to increase access to solar power by allowing renters, condo owners and homeowners in shaded areas or with poor orientation to the sun to buy into community solar gardens built on a common piece of property. Those customers now receive the same tax incentives and rebates as individual rooftop solar customers.

Xcel critic Becky English of the Denver-based Rebecca English and Associates consulting firm said the company is showing its bias toward distributed power.

“An exception to this resistance is Xcel's participation in the Community Solar Gardens stakeholder process in Colorado,” English said. “We'll soon see how fair the company's standard offer for electricity produced under this small program is. Incidentally, the solar gardens standard offer will essentially be a form of feed-in tariff.”

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