Solar Industry Makes Sense On West Slope

By Caitlin Switzer

REGIONAL—When the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA) chose the Western Slope for its stakeholders’ meeting in July, the gathering at the Montrose ACT conference room represented an opportunity for local solar entrepreneurs to connect with leaders in the energy industry, and generated excitement about the future of this emerging field.

Douglas Kiesewetter of Montrose’s Brightleaf Technologies is among the solar industry’s most innovative entrepreneurs. Photo by Claire Clemens.

For one local business owner, news of COSEIA’s visit to Montrose on July 25 also generated a touch of nostalgia. Jim Elder is known mainly as a financial expert and owner of the award-winning firm ElderAdo Financial. However, Elder began his career as the owner of a solar installation and service firm in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the Denver metropolitan area— and was one of the original members of COSEIA.

“It was such an exciting time,” Elder said. “We didn’t know what we were doing— we were scratching our heads, climbing on roofs and creating things, pioneer stuff. There were a handful of us then, and we decided to hold a meeting. So we called all of the solar guys in town and got together, and we tapped into the national organization and created standards for testing and certification.

“COSEIA has really grown!” Elder said. “But back then, you would go to someone’s house and they would stare at you—‘do you know what you’re doing?’ You want to work with people who are certified, and who you can trust.” Although he is no longer involved in the solar field or COSEIA, Elder remains interested in renewable energy sources and the abundance of “raw material” available locally.

“Solar energy just makes sense here,” he said. “It helps our economy, and helps DMEA (Delta-Montrose Electric Association) conserve—maybe they won’t need a new power plant, and we can put a few dollars back in your pocket.”

Elder said that his solar industry background is one reason he has considered a future run for the DMEA board.

“Solar energy can drive our economy forward, and it is ideal for the Western Slope,” he said, noting that his next home will incorporate both passive and active solar technology.

“It’s not just about photovoltaic,” he said. “Just placing windows on the south can cut your heating bills drastically. Don’t plant trees on the south side, because you lose solar gain—the little things can really add up.”

The presence of innovative solar companies such as Bright Leaf Technologies (121 Apollo Road) in the area is also a positive sign, Elder said.

“I hope more solar companies will come here,” he said.

Renewable energy engineer Jim Heneghan of DMEA said that he has seen substantial growth in the solar industry on the Western Slope over the past ten years. “There has been an increase in local system installers, and we also see steady demand from people seeking a source—our first solar array sold out in four weeks, and our second is three-quarters sold.” Government incentives and tax credits can be powerful incentives for builders to use green technologies such as solar, he noted. “Solar is an extremely beneficial, nonpolluting free energy source,” Heneghan said. “It’s the up-front costs that make the difference; the mandate creates the incentive, and continued incentives are important.

“People know that renewable energy is the right thing to do,” Heneghan said, “but they do what they can afford.” Incentives also help local installers, who are attempting to gain a foothold in an emerging and highly competitive industry, he noted.

Colorado’s pioneering role in mandating renewable portfolio standards for utilities has helped increase the use of renewable energy resources as well. Since the passage of the state’s Amendment 37 in 2004, municipal utilities serving 40,000 or more customers and electric cooperatives must have 10 percent of their portfolios invested in renewable energy sources by 2020, and for investor-owned utilities the standard climbs to 30 percent by 2020. Eligible energy sources include landfill gas, wind, biomass, hydroelectric, geothermal electric, recycled energy, anaerobic digestion, fuel cells using renewable fuels—and of course solar, both thermal electric and photovoltaics.

“Solar is coming down in cost, and utilities have seen it integrated into their distribution systems,” Heneghan said. “And the fact of the matter is, when it comes to residential systems, the cost of heating and cooling your home is the biggest expense.”

Homeowners who take advantage of solar energy can definitely lower their power bills, said Soloar Systems Engineer Ken Laturnus of Anasazi Solar.

With the right system, “You can generate and bring power to remote areas,” Laturnus said. “it’s a great way to save money and be more self-sufficient.

“Solar power can be kind of a hedge against inflation,” he said. “If you lock in with the right equipment, you can maintain some control over your energy costs in the future.”