Solar garden program advances


David Amster-Olszewski with one of the solar gardens he's built in Colorado Springs' program. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • David Amster-Olszewski with one of the solar gardens he's built in Colorado Springs' program.

After a protracted debate today of whether to continue Colorado Springs Utilities' community solar gardens, Springs City Council voted 6-3 to take the next step Aug. 27 by considering a tariff to subsidize an additional 2 megawatts of solar garden power.

Council President Keith King and Councilors Helen Collins and Joel Miller opposed the measure.

The debate was intense, and at one point sparked a tongue lashing by Councilor Jan Martin of the Business Alliance's president Joe Raso after Raso called for a more comprehensive approach to renewables, rather than approval of the 2-megawatt program. Or, as he put it, the city needs to develop a "vision" for renewables and energy supply.

Raso said the Alliance wants to take part in a study of renewables to be conducted by the Utilities Policy Advisory Committee, and that it prefers Utilities focus on demand-side management and improving efficiency rather than subsidizing solar gardens, which would cost the typical residential ratepayer the cost of a cup of coffee, per year.

Admitting she was close to losing her temper, Martin accused Raso and the alliance of being "content to live in the past."

"I can't tell you how disappointed I am," she said. Martin said she's spoken with Raso and Alliance members about becoming engaged in energy planning; yet, the alliance has been MIA during public debate of community solar gardens, she said, which has been going on since 2011 when a 2-megawatt pilot program was approved.

Mocking his statement about vision, Martin said maybe the Council needs to rethink its "vision" for further subsidizing the Business Alliance year after year, which costs city taxpayers and Utilities ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

"Maybe we should pull back and talk about that a little longer," she said. "You're telling us sit back and wait a little longer. Let's work on a vision even though you have been invited over and over again" to attend various public meetings involving solar gardens and other renewables.

"This program shows we want to be a community of the future," Martin said. "How disappointed I am when you come here and say, 'Let's study it some more.' All I can say is shame on you. Shame on the Business Alliance to not take the lead."

Martin also reminded Raso that the alliance's website contains a recruitment video promoting Colorado Springs as business-friendly, and it features several shots of SunShare, a company started by a Colorado College grad, David Amster-Olszewski, who has been at the center of the solar garden program since it began two years ago.

Raso later said he wanted to speak with Martin, whom he called "emotional," about the issue privately. He also defended the Business Alliance, saying it provides a good value to the community through its recruitment and retention efforts. Moreover, he said, Alliance members do engage in various community issues, including energy issues.

Other Councilors expressed concerns about subsidies and how a request for proposals would be handled. For example, several want to make sure more than one developer is chosen.

Collins said she opposed the program, because "people cannot afford to pay extra money for solar. Europe says renewables are going downhill. I will stick by my guns. I'm tired of the subsidizing."

Rep. Pete Lee, who said he spoke as a citizen, not a lawmaker, reminded Council the city provides subsidies to lots of businesses, including chip manufacturer Atmel, one of the solar garden program's biggest critics.

King said his constituents have voiced a consistent message of wanting low utility rates. "I'm not opposed to renewable energy, but I am opposed to picking winners and losers," he said. "We're going to face pressure to grow renewables, but I think we need to do it in the most economical way as possible."

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