Energy Initiatives | Interview

Going Solar in a Big Way

Fully functional since December, Colorado State University's 5.3-megawatt solar plant is providing one-third of the electricity needs for the institution's Foothills campus. Constructed in partnership with Fotowatio Renewable Ventures, the eco-friendly structure is expected to reduce greenhouse gases by more than 6,600 tons annually.

Based on an idea that began germinating back in 2006, the solar plant took five years to come to fruition for Colorado State University. The 2-megawatt phase 1 came online in January 2010, followed by the 3.3-megawatt phase 2 in December 2010.

Involved with the project since it was just an idea on a drawing board, Carol Dollard, energy engineer for the university, shared her perspectives on the long road to completion, the challenges overcome during the process, and the institution's upcoming green initiatives:.

Bridget McCrea: How did the solar plant come about?

Carol Dollard: It took a whole lot of work that started back in 2006.

When Colorado voters approved a renewable energy standard two years earlier, the goal was to have 10 percent of the state utilities' energy coming from renewable sources by 2015. Four percent of it had to be onsite solar energy.

The utilities basically created incentives for customers like CSU to install solar systems on campus.

A local utility approached us about participating. At the time it seemed crazy, but the utility developed a plan that required no out-of-pocket investment on the school's part, as long as we leased the land to them for $1 a year. We put in a bid and lost in 2006 and 2007. The following year we sat down with the same partners, sharpened our pencils, gave a bid on the electricity rates and agreed to a 20-year lease. In the meantime, the price of solar panels had come down. We bid and won.

McCrea: How does the relationship with Fotowatio work?

Dollard: They own and operate the plant, and they receive an incentive payment [in cents per kilowatt hour] from the utility company. Then we pay Fotowatio a predetermined cents per kWh for the electricity that they produce. The price is competitive with coal-fired electricity, and we're locked into the rate for 20 years.

McCrea: Was the 20-year lock a selling point for the project?

Dollard: Absolutely. When we sold the university administration on the idea of building the solar plan, being able to lock in the rate for 20 years was huge. In fact, it was probably the biggest factor.

McCrea: Did you run into any snags during construction?

Dollard: I always joke that more lawyering than engineering went into this plant. Getting the agreements done was very tricky. The university had never made a power purchase before, so it took five months to negotiate the contract--and only four months to actually build the plant. In the end we wound up with a great system.

McCrea: Is there anything you'd have done differently?

Dollard: Halfway through the construction of phase 1, the utility (Xcel Energy) changed the rules. Originally it had decreed that we could only have 2 MW on one site. The new rules no longer limited us to 2 MW, but up to 110 percent of the energy used by the entire campus. We had 30 acres of land to work with, and, when the utility changed the rules, it was easy to get the university to agree to an expansion that filled the rest of the site, since it was favorable economically. Phase 1 only took 15 acres of the 30 acres the university had allotted to the project.

That led to some extra expenses and delays, since the original plans didn't call for the expanded site. For example, we had to directionally bore into the road in order to tie into the utility's infrastructure, and then we had to go back and do it again for phase 2.

It would have been much cheaper to do it all the first time out.

Fortunately, the lawyering didn't take nearly as long as the first time out, since we'd already hashed everything over and were familiar with the process.

McCrea: Is the plant living up to expectations?

Dollard: It's producing the exact amount of energy that we expected--nothing more, nothing less. It's doing exactly what the utility and Fotowatio said it would. Electricity usage at the Foothills Campus peaks at about 5 megawatts, but the plant doesn't produce 24/7 so the load isn't at that level all the time. There are times when we push as many as 2 megawatts back onto the grid, so we also spin the meter backwards and produce more than we even use.

McCrea: What would you say to other universities that want to build solar plants?

Dollard: Plan ahead, and realize that this isn't a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. There's a good chance that the project will scale up, and if you have the right resources and plans in place from the outset, those future changes will be easier to manage.

McCrea: What's next on CSU's "green" agenda?

Dollard: We used up the land that the university allocated for the plant. There is adjacent acreage available, but it's not prime land so we don't have plans to expand the plant. We do have some other initiatives in the planning stages, including the use of renewable energy sources like biomass. We have a small, wood-chip boiler and we're looking at ways to expand that to a larger-scale system. There is a lot of beetle kill in our state, and Colorado State Forest Service approached us about partnering on a small project that would use the beetles as a viable option for displacing natural gas. The University of Montana just committed to a large-scale biomass plant, and we are watching that develop. In the future, we could dive into a similar project.

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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