GCEA seeks solar arrays to meet local energy needs

Goal: 50 percent renewable by 2030

By Kristy Acuff

The Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) is pursuing construction of two 500-kilowatt solar arrays to provide locally produced power to valley residents. The solar project fits into GCEA’s long-term goal to supply 50 percent of its power needs through renewable sources by 2030.

Currently, GCEA is one of 44 members of Tri-State Transmission and Generation, which generates approximately 30 percent of its energy through renewable sources. The GCEA board of directors approved funding for the solar projects, each of which will cover approximately three and a half acres of land, according to Mike McBride, CEO for GCEA.

“The prices we are looking at for the solar power will actually be a bit less expensive than what we currently pay for Tri-State power,” says McBride. “We will actually save a bit of money with these solar arrays.”

GCEA will hire Colorado-based Microgrid Energy to construct and install the solar facilities in a location to be determined. GCEA staff has been working together with the Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Institute to analyze potential sites for a solar array.

According to its contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Company, GCEA may self-generate only 5 percent of the total power it distributes to customers; the remaining 95 percent must be purchased from Tri-State suppliers. The planned solar array would be 2 percent of GCEA’s total power distribution, thus falling well within the mandated cap imposed by Tri-State members. The 5 percent cap has generated controversy among some of Tri-State’s 44 member co-ops throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wyoming.

According to cleancooperative.com, 13 of the member co-ops are at or approaching the 5 percent limit but when asked to increase the cap to 10 percent, one cooperative, the LaPlata Electric Association, was told no by the Tri-State Board.

Tri-State senior manager of communication Lee Boughey said the Tri-State members voted in 2000 to impose the 5 percent self-generation cap in order to ensure that fixed costs for transmission lines and power plants would continue to be shared among the members. Basically, if a member generated more than the 5 percent, they would buy less of their power from Tri-State and consequently, contribute less money than other members.

“The 5 percent cap ensures that each member fairly and equitably pays their share of fixed costs,” said Boughey. “If any member self-supplied beyond that 5 percent, they would be shifting costs from their cooperative onto other members of the association.”

Boughey said there are a number of members that would like to see the cap increased, but so far, the 44-member board of directors has voted to keep it at 5 percent.

In order to reach its goal of 50 percent renewable by 2030, GCEA will pursue this solar project, and utilize Tri-State’s 30 percent renewable power as well as increasing the voluntary green power program. This program allows customers to pay a bit extra for blocks of “green” power.

And finally, GCEA recently installed 20 solar panels in the town of Crested Butte to be leased by community members. If you lease a panel, you get a credit on your electric bill based on the production of that panel for the month. So far, 13 of the panels have been leased and GCEA plans to present to the Crested Butte Town Council to expand the project with more panels this summer.

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