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Lack of lines limit solar energy sales

Sep 1, 2007 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Matt Hildner The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

If the large-scale production of solar energy is going to take off in the San Luis Valley, it will need some help getting to urban markets.

The Public Utilities Commission, which regulates investor-owned electric utilities and partially oversees municipal utilities and electrical associations, came to Alamosa last week and part of its stop included the discussion of transmission lines.

"Colorado is at the cusp of a big decision," PUC Commissioner Ron Binz said. "Shall we become an exporting state?"

The San Luis Valley is the best spot for solar energy in Colorado, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab, which also ranked the state's potential sixth nationally.

Earlier this year, SunEdison broke ground on an 8.2-megawatt solar power plant north of Alamosa. Others, such as California-based Ausra, are looking to generate much larger quantities of electricity for markets outside the valley.

Harriet Moyer Aptekar, Ausra's development manager for Colorado, said the valley's location is an advantage compared with other parts of the Southwest.

"It's one of the closest, good solar resources to tie into the eastern (power-line) grid," she said. "We can only do that if there's transmission (through lines) out of the valley."

Ausra is in the permitting stage for projects in California. Its parent company, Australia's Solar Heat and Power, is constructing solar power plants in Australia and Portugal.

But making the valley a feasible location for companies like Ausra will not come cheap.

Transmission lines would be expensive, Binz said, and destination markets likely wouldn't be able to pay the up-front costs.

That would leave utility customers across the state to pay for construction.

The state is looking at ways to speed transmission projects, but state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, said Colorado needs to act quickly to take advantage of its potential.

"It's going to take ingenuity, it's going to take commitment, it's going to take some costs," said Schwartz, whose 11-county district includes all of the San Luis Valley.

She did, however, point to legislation passed earlier this year that would help speed the development of transmission lines.

Senate Bill 100, signed by the governor in March, requires utilities to identify areas with renewable resources and plan for improvements to the transmission grid leading to and from those areas.

Utility companies in the state also are engaged in a study of bolstering the transmission grid in the state and improving access to areas with renewable energy resources.

The study, undertaken by eight companies including Xcel Energy and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, is anticipated to be finished by the end of the year and publish a report sometime thereafter.