The Troubled State of Solar in Colorado

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As Xcel Energy awaits a PUC ruling on 36 MW of customer-sited solar capacity requested for its Solar*Rewards incentives program, solar companies say policy uncertainty in the state is hurting their business. Lighthouse Solar is even going so far as to stop Colorado installations, saying it’s just too hard to do business there.

 

Despite its abundant solar resources, Colorado is just barely holding on to its position in the Top 10 Solar States list. Last year it slipped from the #9 spot to #10, and it went down the list even further on measures like total installed capacity.

With Xcel Energy putting out press releases left and right about all the solar installation it’s facilitating in the state, you’d think Colorado solar was due for a comeback.  

But if you’re not Xcel, it can be harder to develop solar in the state. Solar provider Lighthouse Solar, based in Boulder, just announced that it’s getting out of the installation business there. In a statement, the company said, “Market conditions created by Xcel Energy and the PUC have made operating in Colorado too difficult and unpredictable to do business.” The company says its two installation offices in Austin, Texas and New Paltz, New York, in contrast, are still very busy.

“It is deeply disappointing that the only thing standing between us and the enormous demand for solar energy in our home state is Xcel Energy, a state sanctioned monopoly, and the PUC,” says Scott Franklin, President and CEO of Lighthouse Solar. “Colorado should be a global leader in solar energy. We have over 300 days of high altitude sunshine a year; we have an incredibly progressive population that is concerned about the environment and climate change, yet instead we are going backwards. Since Hickenlooper took office, we have dropped from being ranked 3rd Nationally to 10th in terms of solar adoption – behind states like New Jersey and Massachusetts.”

Xcel Energy is projected to install 50 MW of solar in Colorado in 2014. But solar companies like Lighthouse Solar have only been able to bid for 7 MW of commercial contracts in Colorado this year — the same amount as Lighthouse Solar alone installed last year in the state.

That 7 MW is an advance on what Xcel has requested of the Colorado Public Service Commission (PUC). The company filed a plan to add 36 MW of customer-sited solar capacity to its Solar*Rewards incentives program, which had reached the capacity previously set. According to Solar Industry Magazine, this advance is intended to serve as a “bridge” pending PUC approval of the larger amount. But a ruling may still be a few months away.

While Lighthouse Solar cites both Xcel Energy and the PUC as the forces holding it back, Xcel has been passing the buck to the PUC, as reported by the Boulder Daily Camera. Spokesman Gabriel Romero told the Daily Camera that Xcel “is at the mercy of the PUC.”

Lighthouse Solar is not buying that. Franklin said to the Daily Camera, “People think that this whole program is out of the goodness and generosity of Xcel’s heart, and that’s certainly not the case. It’s their program? It’s not their program. It’s our dollars.” He said that by blaming the PUC, Xcel can look like it’s trying to help the solar industry while in reality it’s just trying to keep solar development to itself.

Romero told the Daily Camera that Lighthouse Solar is the only Colorado solar company he’s heard complain about the situation in the state.

But that’s a different story from what Robin Kittel, director of regulatory administration for Xcel Energy, said to Solar Industry Magazine: “It’s the middle of July, and the solar industry has been clear that the stopping and starting [of policy] has hurt them.”