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Auraria Campus Goes Green

Mayor John Hickenlooper is all about the green: He has an initiative to plant a million trees by 2025, a leafy jacket and his Greenprint Denver plan to prove it. But students on the Auraria campus are trying to one-up him by building the largest solar-energy project on a college campus outside of California, and the fifth-largest in the country. By placing photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the Central Classroom and library buildings, they plan to generate 750 kilowatts of solar power, which would offset about 3 percent of the energy used on campus -- on top of the 45 percent that already comes from wind.

On May 30, they'll find out if the Public Utilities Commission is going to quash their effort.

Plans for the solar project began last summer when California-based 3 Phases Energy Services approached the head of Auraria facilities management, Jim Fraser. The company specializes in developing and coordinating solar projects and was looking to respond to Xcel Energy's Solar*Rewards program, which pays customers for energy they generate from solar panels.

Since Colorado voters approved Amendment 37 in 2004, requiring that 10 percent of retail electricity sales come from renewable sources by 2015, Xcel created such incentive programs to help it meet the new standard. Last year the utility put out a request for proposals to solar developers such as 3 Phases, seeking potential projects from which Xcel could buy renewable-energy credits.

In an REC deal, the actual electricity produced is separated from the benefits of producing that electricity in an environmentally sound way, so that companies such as Xcel can purchase the benefits, but not necessarily the electricity. The company can then use those credits, which equal one per megawatt hour of electricity, to meet their requirement for renewable energy.

"We find a customer and help them understand the incentives from Xcel," says Tim Derrick of 3 Phases, who saw a lot of potential on Auraria's rooftops.

Fraser agreed, and they worked together to put in a bid to Xcel. In August, it was selected. They then had to sell the idea to the Auraria Board, which oversees the management of the campus. So Fraser enlisted the help of Lindsey Gavioli, head of the University of Colorado at Denver's chapter of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

Gavioli and Fraser sat down with representatives of Xcel and 3 Phases to produce a cost analysis. They found that with an outside investor agreeing to pay for the $5 million project, and 3 Phases owning the array and selling the energy back to Auraria, the campus's only financial commitment was covering the rate increase from coal and gas to solar. But the new rate would be fixed over twenty years, and thus feasibly save the campus money in the future, since coal and gas rates are expected to rise. After that twenty-year period, they'd have the option to purchase the array so that the campus could generate its own power -- direct from the sun -- at a minimal cost.

About a dozen students took the information and gathered petition signatures from 500 of their peers and obtained letters of support from the faculties, administrations and student governments of the three schools that share the campus.

In November, Gavioli went before the Auraria Board asking for the project's approval and for campus administration to cover the initial increase in power costs -- expected to be about $50,000 over the first eight years -- so that students would not be impacted. In December, the members approved the project and agreed to cover the bill. "It's just been very exciting," Gavioli says. "Essentially, the only reason this thing passed is because we students jumped on board with this and ran with it. We really created a buzz, and it shows that here at Auraria, students have a lot of power. If we care about something like sustainability, we can really make it happen. Students are starting to be able to rally around this and create an identity on this campus that traditionally has not really been there."

That sentiment is echoed by Ron Miller, a product developer in Xcel's marketing group who developed the Solar Rewards Program: "It's in a great location for a lot of people in the downtown area to see the panels," he says. "The students have done a superb job of marshaling support. They've gone to bat to make this a reality."

Those students, 3 Phases and Xcel planned to announce the project in February and start construction this summer. They were even talking about ways to create an educational component and put real-time monitors on campus so that students could track how much energy was being generated. But they kept hitting delays, and then on March 9, Richard Mignogna, a PUC engineer, testified to the commission that staff was concerned about Xcel's Solar*Rewards program. He said they believed Xcel would acquire too many solar renewable-energy credits at too high a cost too early, and that it could be disastrous to the future of solar-energy creation in Colorado.

"If the company purchases the amount of solar RECs [renewable-energy credits] that it has indicated it plans to, it could meet the RES [renewable-energy standard] clear out to 2016 with RECs acquired in 2006," he wrote. "This would have a deleterious effect on Colorado's nascent solar industry, creating a downturn rivaling the boom and bust cycles caused by inconsistent federal subsidies." Mignogna went on to explain that the goal of the incentive program is to stimulate the market and support the industry. By offering the incentives all at once instead of gradually, the program could stifle that growth and investment. Since solar is currently the most expensive form of electric generation, the idea is that over time, as the technology and competition increase, the cost would go down and the need for incentives would diminish.

However, Tom Henley, a spokesman with Xcel, points out that while the company is going to be seven years early when it meets its 10 percent renewable-energy standard at the end of this year, the company will have done so while only increasing customers' bills by six-tenths of 1 percent -- less than the full 1 percent the law authorizes.

Mignogna's recommendation, since Xcel had already made commitments to bidders such as Auraria, was to "spread the pain among the impacted parties." He suggested that each of the winning developers be limited to generating a total of 2 megawatts of energy, even if that developer won bids on multiple projects. Since 3 Phases Energy had also won a bid for a separate two-megawatt federal project, such a decision from the PUC would likely kill its 750 kilowatt (or three-quarters of a megawatt) Auraria project.

Unprepared to take on an expert analysis of the state's entire solar industry, the Auraria students decided to react by simply making their support of the campus project known. "I just know we worked really hard here," Gavioli says. "It would make a difference in this school community and the Denver community."

On April 16 Andrew Cepeda took that point directly to a PUC public hearing, making a plea for all of the pending solar projects to go forward. Governor Bill Ritter's newly appointed chair of the three-person commission, Ron Binz, seemed to take Cepeda's testimony seriously. Binz, a supporter of renewable-energy initiatives and a former consumer advocate for utility customers, asked Cepeda about the work he'd done to get the project approved, and inquired about his studies at Metropolitan State College, congratulating him for his emphases in philosophy and economics -- two areas Binz has degrees in.

Tim Derrick of 3 Phases also testified that the project at Auraria would be a "very positive and visible manifestation of a community benefit project." He said students and staff spent countless hours on the project and that his company had already invested in it heavily. "With an arbitrary two-megawatt cap, all this work at Auraria would be for naught."

The PUC will make its decision on Xcel's plan to comply with Amendment 37 on May 30, and Binz cannot comment on the issue while the matter is pending. PUC spokesman Terry Bote says the testimony of Mignogna and other staff will be given the same weight as any other testimony: "Staff is just one party, with the same rights and responsibilities as everybody else."

In the meantime, Auraria students are continuing their commitment to sustainability. On April 25 and 26, they voted to renew their current Clean Energy Fee of $1 per student per semester, and approved an increase every year up to $5 per semester in 2010-11. The money will support the Sustainable Campus Program, which aims to increase renewable energy on campus, improve the energy efficiency of buildings, expand recycling and reduce waste. "Students overwhelmingly passed the fee," Fraser says. "I think the students are fantastic for being responsible. Sustainability is this generation's issue. I'm pretty proud of them."

While Greenprint Denver tries to create a buzz about sustainability, Auraria students may soon give Hickenlooper the most visible green project his city has ever seen.

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Jessica Centers