Trout Creek Solar Plant

By Paul Erickson, CEO

Paul Erickson, CEO
Paul Erickson

Earlier this summer, a major milestone was marked by Sangre de Cristo Electric Assn., Inc.: a celebration of the completion of the Trout Creek Solar plant. The “wire-cutting” (ribbon cutting) ceremony marked a first for the state of Colorado — a solar facility on Colorado Department of Corrections land.

It was only the end of August of last year when SDCEA signed a 36-year site license agreement giving the project a go-ahead after 13 months of negotiations with the Colorado Department of Corrections. Construction on the project began in September.

From September until the end of January, we at SDCEA and the staff at the Colorado Department of Corrections began to wade through the heretofore uncharted waters of state government, fight winter weather, build communication and power lines and the plant itself; all to be certified operational no later than February 1 of this year.

The plant was fully operational by the end of January, which was remarkable given the challenges I’ll outline below. We did it.

Trout Creek Solar is the first of its kind Public/Private Partnership in Colorado. This project would not be possible if not for the hard work, creative thinking, and determination of the staff and leadership of the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Buena Vista Correctional Complex.

We all had a steep uphill climb through all kinds of red tape and government bureaucracy. These folks went where no one had gone before in Colorado state government. They stayed with us, never gave up, and ultimately made it happen. When you’re the first-ever at anything and government is involved, there are bound to be challenges. Trout Creek Solar is “SERIAL NUMBER ONE” for the state of Colorado.

As the project grew nearer to construction, we encountered numerous hurdles of other state agencies, due to there never having been a project like this before. Agencies like the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Regulatory Agencies, and the office of the State Electrical Board all had to get involved from the beginning until fairly late in the game, and they all had their own concerns. There were several times when I was concerned that the project would be scuttled due to the fast learning curve required of these agencies combined with the lack of precedent for such a project. Without the intervention and involvement of our affiliates, most notedly the Colorado Rural Electric Association, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and the offices of Rep. Jim Wilson and Sen. Kerry Donovan, and others, this project may have been sidelined or even killed. Thank you to all of you who stuck your necks out and intervened to keep our project moving forward and special thanks to the folks from the AG’s office, DORA and the State Electrical Board for acting so quickly in the end when we needed you most.

Sangre de Cristo Electric is a locally owned nonprofit electric cooperative. We are one of 43 such co-ops who, together, own Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, our power supplier.

Tri-State provides ALL of our power at a wholesale cost in order to achieve efficiencies and economies of scale, which is the only way we can economically provide affordable and reliable electricity to our rural mountain area.

Even so, there are ways for us to do smaller local projects when they are economical, as with Trout Creek Solar, which is rated at 2 megawatts or about the amount of power needed to power the typical electric use in 685 homes in our area.

Until recently, there was no vocal interest by our consumers to undertake a project like this, because we already own and purchase more than 30% of our power through cost-effective, renewable and zero carbon resources directly from Tri-State.

However, a couple years ago a coalition of consumers approached us representing a strong interest in a community solar project. After multiple meetings, Sangre de Cristo staff, along with our board of directors, developed a utility scale solar framework that could serve the wants and needs of the community, be large enough to achieve at least some economies of scale and be a relatively cost-effective addition to our energy portfolio.

Among others, the folks from Buena Vista Solar Share were our main collaborators from the local community. Leadership from the town of Buena Vista, including mayors, trustees, and administrators, had multiple meetings with Sangre staff and me in exploring how we could best meet everybody’s needs and how the town could be involved. Throughout this process, the town supported the project and we are still working on ways for the town and others to purchase output from the project and other renewable opportunities.

Early on, Chaffee County staff worked with us closely so they could better understand the unusual aspects of the project on state property. The county was great to work with and made it easy to proceed.

Selecting our partner, juwi, Inc., an international renewable energy development company, gives us great confidence that this project will provide a portion of our needs for many years. Juwi was selected through a comprehensive year-long RFI/ RFQ/RFP selection process that brought us to several highly-respected, accomplished, experienced players in renewable energy development.

We were surprised and honored that these types of firms would be interested in our relatively small project. But juwi stood out as the firm that could help us get through the challenges that a project such as this presented.

After the project was completed and certified, juwi sold this plant to AEP Onsite Partners, another major player in solar energy. We will have a long-term partner in AEP Onsite Partners who, together with our success with juwi, give us confidence that we can do more in the future as the world of energy continues to evolve.

As you know, SDCEA is governed by a corporate board of directors representing several counties and the town of BV. This board is elected by all of the members in our territory.

The board is my “boss.” Throughout the entire process, the board was closely involved with every aspect of the project and boldly led us to this point through all of the peaks and valleys.

The Future of the Project

Sangre de Cristo is well-positioned to act on future opportunities, including energy storage, when such technologies are ready for deployment.

Now is not the time to lament about what we further need. For some, it will never be enough. Let us instead mark this moment that an innovative, first-of-its-kind project was successful despite overwhelming odds stacked against it. We persevered.

As a small, highly-leveraged community- owned utility, we must be responsible stewards of this electric system that is the lifeblood of our valley. We must be prudent with the trust given to us by our consumers.

Now is the time to celebrate a major milestone and the first step toward the future of locally-produced clean energy. Now is not the time for impatience and skepticism.

Now is the time for optimism as this project provides more than four percent of EVERYONE’S electricity on our system with low-cost implications. And, through the combination of our growing fleet of consumer-owned, net-metered installations along with Tri-State’s huge and ever-growing renewable and zerocarbon portfolio, Sangre de Cristo Electric consumers receive more than 40% of their power from renewable and zero carbon
resources. Yes, 40%.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that.

Now is also the time to announce that we are close to launching our community solar carve-out for homeowners and businesses to purchase more of their own power directly from Trout Creek Solar. We intend for this to happen this year. We’re still working out the kinks.

Now is not the time to rest on our laurels. However, now is the time to take stock of what makes SDCEA and its consumers special. It says a lot about our community to support a project like this. It says a lot about Tri-State to support a project like this. And it says a lot about your board of directors,
staff and others to lay it on the line to negotiate and build this project despite all odds, bringing to the valley a cost-effective, long-term clean energy project to be proud of for years to come.

A good first step.

And as to cost, a sensible first step.