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Vail Valley Voices: Solar greenwash at the Eagle County Regional Airport?

Bill Sepmeier
Vail, CO, Colorado
newsroom@vaildaily.com

The Eagle County Commission has been trying to add a bit o’ the Irish to the airport for some time.

Last fall, the county, with only about two weeks’ notice, solicited designs and bids for a 1,000,000 watt, 4,500 PV module solar facility which had to be completely installed by Christmas.

Obviously, that construction didn’t happen. There was then some talk that the project would commence in March, which hasn’t happened either, based on my last look at the airport anyway. This large-scale solar project was to be funded by third party system owner/operators who would sell electricity to the airport under a power purchase agreement.



The millions of dollars in hardware would have been placed on county land, but at no upfront expense to the county or taxpayers. A very similar model was used at Denver International Airport last year.

Overall, it was a fairly good deal for the county, though due to the low cost of electricity I never thought it made much sense from a provider’s vantaget. The tax incentives and renewable energy credits seemed the biggest part of the appeal to the third party player then, not the actual revenues and certainly nobody needs more tax losses now. The world’s changed a bit since last fall.



Perhaps the deal will still be done. Last time I asked, though, I got no reply to my e-mail.

Recently, however, it was published in the paper that the county commissioners were now interested in finding out the costs involved in building a covered parking area or solar carport at the airport — a public covered car park area, topped with solar modules and paid for by new parking fees.

This appears to be a completely different model than the third-party plan, and given the size of the lot and requirement for auto access, a smaller solar power generation system as well. Depending on the technology employed, the upfront cost of this greenwashing will range between a lot and a lot more. And its cost recovery time, since the county and not a power-purchase-agreement provider is asking about costs, will be a long time, even with parking fees added.



Let’s face it, the county could impose fees for all airport parking, like every other airport this side of Entebbe, Uganda and, with no solar panel expenses at all, use those proceeds to pay for both the carport, the airport’s energy needs and the carbon credits needed to offset the use of coal in the energy’s generation over in Craig if you want to be all green about it.

Greenwash?

The airport now uses about 150,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month on average over the year, or the same amount of energy as about 200 average homes per month. To offset this consumption with solar energy will require about 1,000,000 watts in solar module production, since the sun only shines during the day and only makes meaningful power for about five to six of those hours, when it isn’t overcast and as long as the 4,500 or so solar modules needed to generate this type of energy aren’t coated with the gypsum dust that covers everything out there after a few days.

The county now pays between 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity at the airport, which is probably why, after a detailed review and given the present economy and tax loss environment, you’re not seeing a third-party system breaking ground there yet.

Solar power today still costs a more by twice than what the county pays for it to generate using solar, even amortized over 20 years and after generous tax incentives to offset hardware and installation costs — the actual “production” cost.

Most power-purchase agreements are priced at more than double the rate the county pays, with escalation over time. Frankly, the county won’t be seeing any real changes in electricity costs for a while, given the collapse in fossil energy commodities pricing and a remarkable associated drop in electricity demand nationally due to the recession.

If a private sector firm receiving all of the incentives isn’t jumping on a solar investment at 6 cents per kilowatt hour ROI, then why would the county want a solar carport area that will produce less energy at non-incentivised (list) prices? And do remember a for-profit power-purchase firm would be receiving both a 30 percent investment tax credit and 50 percent first year depreciation allowance to offset the costs, both of which are irrelevant to a government body like the county, plus up to a couple of million in rebates from renewable energy credits.

Most “highly visible” solar projects that aren’t about offsetting a large portion of actual fossil energy use, its costs and its pollution are not really all that green. They’re greenwash, public relations events, “feel-good legacy items,” perhaps.

Buying and using a fleet of hybrid vehicles that get four times the mileage as the former fleet did — that’s green with a capital G and a wise use of public funds, as well. Covering a few hundred parking spaces in a winter snow climate zone like this area with solar panels on top of a solar carport? I hate to say it, since I’m in the solar business but that’s … well, it’s sort of a silly idea.

Fixed solar PV modules in this area need to face south and be angled up from horizontal at 40 degrees — our latitude — for optimal year-round production. But they tend to hold snow for days following a storm when they’re at that angle around here, which lowers production.

Mounted at lower than latitude-angle they simply stay covered and produce no energy for most of the winter.

Optimally, they can be adjusted — to 55 degrees tilt from fall to spring, back to 35 degrees from spring through fall.

Systems that actively track the sun across the sky every day, like the one down at DIA, work best in snow since they move and therefore shed snow effectively every morning and evening. But they’re a lot more complex and generally not suited for placement on rooftops due to wind loading and stress issues that increase the need for a lot more structural steel below them.

You’ll probably end up with something that looks more like a Sherman tank park. There’s one outfit that proposes hanging the panels from cables stretched between steel poles, letting the solar panels themselves be the carport. As sailors say, tuning that rig will be nothing short of amazing.

USA Today reported this week that municipal and local government bond issues have become a lot more risky nationwide, as the home and commercial real estate foreclosure rate has risen and real estate values, the basis of most local tax revenues, fall. Local sales tax revenues are tracking the rise in unemployment and fall in consumer spending as well, adding risk to government bonds.

Like it or not, Eagle County’s annual tax revenues will track this trend and therefore might be better budgeted for paving the last few dirt roads in the county to lower ongoing maintenance costs and keep a few of our local paving people around, or for buying even more fuel-efficient vehicles to lower costs of government operation further, or perhaps in expanding general county construction projects like the one at the jail that local companies can bid on and build, public works projects that will hopefully help employ what’s left of the building base in the valley.

By this time next year solar PV module production costs are expected to be about a quartr of the price they are right now, and today’s prices are already down 20 percent from a year ago.

Arizona’s First Solar and locally, Boulder’s Abound Solar manufacturing plan to be producing modules at a cost of $1per watt by year’s end, down from average of over $4 per watt today. At $1 per watt, solar power production costs over time are at parity with grid power.

So what’s the hurry? Given the deflationary solar economy and state of the art, airport solar carports built today are probably not going to stimulate much more than even more disgruntled taxpayers.

Bill Sepmeier, of Sweetwater, designs and operates solar and renewable energy systems.


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