Outgoing council approves solar subsidy; opponents criticize program costs, while supporters say it makes city look good

       A City Council with six outgoing members ap-proved a subsidy program April 9 that will boost the solar industry while costing Colorado Springs Utilities at least $22 million over the next 20 years.
       John Romero, Utilities' general manager for energy acquisition, said that the program would bump rates up by .26 percent for residential users and .8 percent for “larger users.”
       City Auditor Denny Nestor predicted a larger increase, based on his belief that the program will cost $26.6 million over 20 years if utility rates continue to increase as they have been at about 6 percent a year. (Romero said he thought 3 percent was more realistic.) In dollars, Nestor estimated bills would go up $3.62 a year for residential, $36.15 for commercial, $12,410 for typical industrial users and $13,195 for typical larger industrial users.
       Regarding the latter category, Dan Malinaric of the Atmel Corporation said that as the city's largest private consumer of electrical energy, Atmel foresees a subsidy-caused increase of $75,000 a year in utility costs, at a time when pressure from overseas manufacturing is driving Atmel to seek across-the-board reductions of its own costs by 10 percent. He asked council to consider carefully “what this [the subsidy program] is doing to the business climate of the city.”
       Supporters of the Utilities plan - which is formally called the “community solar garden bill credit program” - said it shows that Colorado Springs backs renewable energy, which leaves a good impression on people elsewhere.
       “Cities across the state are asking about our solar program because of the successes we've had,” City Councilmember Jan Martin said, referring to a roughly two-year pilot program that preceded the 20-year plan.
       Another repeated theme, on council and in public comments, was that the plan encourages youthful entrepreneurs, and the solar industry exemplifies that. “I do believe that if Colorado Springs wants to attract and keep young professionals we have to start showing that we hear them and want to be the community for them,” she said.
       The 6-3 vote's majority included Scott Hente, Brandy Williams and Bernie Herpin - all of whom were in their last council meeting before their terms expire April 16. The three continuing at-large members (Martin, Val Snider and Merv Bennett) also voted yes. Opposed were three others who are leaving: Lisa Czelatdko, Tim Leigh and Angela Dougan.
       One of the newly elected council members, Joel Miller, who will replace Dougan in the northern city's District 2, asked the body to defer the issue, but was told by Hente that the group had voted earlier in the day not to do so.
       Council also defeated a motion by Leigh to “kill” the idea altogether. “We're making a policy they [the new council] has to live with, and I don't think that's right,” said Leigh, who also suggested waiting a year because solar prices are dropping. “There's no mandate to do this except that it makes some people feel good. That's policy by feeling, not principle, and that's wrong.”
       According to Utilities plans, the program would add up to 10 megawatts to the city-owned enterprise's capacity - .4 percent of its overall total - by giving a credit to local solar vendors to help them sell panels to residential and commercial customers.
       This was a key point for Herpin, saying that fossil fuels replacing renewables, even if “subsidized at some minimal level,” will “postpone the possibility of building another power plant.”
       But Dick Standaert, one of the program critics, argued that .4 percent is such a tiny addition to capacity the impact is negligible; also, that the cost difference between the power sources is huge. He listed the city's initial solar-subsidy credit (16 cents per kilowatt hour (KWh)), and then the cost of purchasing coal or natural gas (2-3 cents per KWh).
       David Amster, one of the solar vendors who worked with Utilities to make the subsidy happen, thanked the city for its help and pledged to work for a future where no subsidies are needed. For now, “because of the support you've given me and the renewable industry, that has enabled me to fulfill my promise to live in Colorado Springs and hire young entrepreneurs from Colorado College and UCCS and the military as well.”

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