R.J. Harrington and Timothy Schoechle, BOULDER DAILY CAMERA
In his March 16 Camera column, "Renewables? Yes!" Bob Greenlee praised the recently announced plan by Xcel Energy to construct a large utility-scale solar PV project in Pueblo County which he claims will be "two to three times more cost-effective than smaller rooftop projects." Although a dubious claim, such a project might still seem like a good idea — to those unaware of the incredibly rapid changes taking place in the energy world. But the ground is moving under Greenlee’s (and Xcel’s) feet. Over the last year, and particularly in the last few months, the main debate has shifted from fossil vs. renewables to centralized renewables vs. distributed renewables — specifically rooftop solar PV.
Just over one year ago, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the investor-owned utility policy and lobbying organization, issued a brief, but prescient report titled "Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business." The report offered its members a "heads-up" that their basic 100-year old business model was threatened by rooftop solar, and it recommended that they rethink their whole business. The costs of rooftop solar panels (called Distributed Generation or DG) have dropped so dramatically that in some places they are already cost competitive with utility-supplied electricity. The conventional economies of scale of centralized generation is simply gone — solar modules are just as efficient at small scale as large. Public pressure has been mounting for PUCs to adopt new tariffs that recognize the "Value of Solar" to society and to encourage its use by moving beyond the ancient "cost-of-service" regulatory model that does not recognize the externalized costs of traditional generation (e.g., to air, water, health, jobs, environment, etc.) or the benefits of DG.