Garfield County’s success in solar energy development

Garfield County has a long history of energy production, and it continues to pursue an “all of the above” energy strategy. That includes renewable energy, which is becoming a growing part of the mix. 

In fact, Garfield County – including all the towns in the county, the county itself, and major organizations such as Colorado Mountain College – has emerged as an inspiring example of how a rural region can make major progress on solar energy production, while diversifying its economy along the way.

How this came to be is no accident. It’s the product of forward thinking and ongoing countywide collaborative efforts. That – combined with innovation, available sites for development and abundant sunshine – has turned our region into a model of solar success.

Our county’s solar roots trace back to the 1980s, when CMC and then the nonprofit Solar Energy International started offering solar industry training, attracting early innovators who went on to develop several trailblazing solar projects in Carbondale. At the time, people were pretty excited about installations that were in the range of 10 kilowatts (kW).

CLEAN ENERGY MATTERS

By Dave Reed
This column was originally published in the March 22, 2024 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

In the late 2000s, the City of Rifle’s then-Mayor Keith Lambert championed the installation of a major solar array at the wastewater treatment plant that added 1.7 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity – that is, 170 times more than the earlier arrays. Mayor Lambert saw solar production as a way to diversify the local economy and save money by creating more homegrown energy.

That vision helped spur further efforts to scale up solar. In 2008, a New Energy Communities Initiative grant from the Department of Local Affairs provided seed funding for the creation of Garfield Clean Energy (GCE). GCE is a collaborative of Garfield County, its six municipalities and other partners. The grant was earmarked, in part, to install solar on public buildings in Garfield County, and the partners set themselves a goal of adding another 1 MW of capacity.

The initial grant resulted in solar on town halls, senior centers, police stations, water and wastewater treatment plant properties, public works buildings, libraries, and sports facilities throughout the county. Solar then followed at the Garfield County airport and fairgrounds, Roaring Fork High School and Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus and its Rifle building. 

While a 1 MW goal had at first seemed ambitious, solar production on government-owned sites had grown to 4.6 MW by 2022, according to a progress report recently compiled for the county by GCE.

And that’s only a third of the county’s total solar capacity – commercial and residential properties account for the other two thirds. All told, solar now generates about 4 percent of the electricity consumed in the county.

Much of our commercial solar capacity comes from solar farms built by private companies through agreements with utilities that serve our region. Three additional projects – two for Holy Cross Energy, outside of Parachute and Rifle, and an Xcel project outside of Rifle – are currently in the works, each of them larger than anything built so far in Garfield County. When they’re brought online, they’ll triple the county’s solar capacity. They’ll also feature significant onsite battery storage capacity, which will make the electricity they produce more versatile.

Meanwhile, Garfield County homeowners have been investing in solar at a healthy rate, spurred by a 60-plus-percent drop in total installed costs over the past decade. In 2021, GCE launched the Solarize Garfield County campaign to further encourage rooftop solar with bulk-purchase discounts. The program was phenomenally popular, adding nearly a megawatt to the county’s solar capacity.

Updating solar codes to be more efficient is another way that Garfield County has been out in front, at least among rural areas. Four of our jurisdictions – Garfield County, Silt, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale – have been recognized by the national SolSmart program for their efforts to make it faster, easier and more affordable to go solar through streamlined permitting and zoning regulations.

While all this solar development is good, more of it would be even better.

A 2021 solar and storage study conducted by CLEER and other partners found that nearly a quarter of current electricity demand in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties could be met by local solar and storage. The report makes the case that it’s in the region’s economic interest to develop as much solar as possible locally – rather than relying on electricity imported from large-scale projects elsewhere – because it creates jobs, generates tax revenues, keeps dollars in the local economy and makes for greater grid reliability.

Recognizing these benefits, GCE’s Energy Action Plan lays out a set of strategies to pursue development of the county’s full market potential for both rooftop solar and community-scale solar (i.e., solar farms). For 2024, GCE hopes to find ways to support more solar-plus-storage development on public sites and facilities, seek funding to restart Solarize, and bolster the resources available to help residents and businesses pursue solar.

Solar development in Garfield County is a long game that will deliver even more benefits in the future. It will build on our region’s existing energy culture and skills, while offering a path forward that’s both technologically and economically resilient.