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La Plata Electric puts brakes on new solar arrays around Durango

Some circuits of the grid have 100% daytime needs met by solar energy
La Plata Electric Association has released a map showing where solar energy generation is maxed out or warrants additional review in areas in and around Durango. (Courtesy of La Plata Electric Association)

La Plata Electric Association, the power cooperative serving several counties in Southwest Colorado, announced Thursday that it is suspending applications for new solar systems in large swathes of Durango, the Animas Valley, the Florida Mesa and the Durango West developments.

The co-op has allowed members to generate more solar electricity than needed and used the excess to power neighboring homes and businesses. But an analysis of the grid by third-party experts concluded that there are not enough buildings to use that excess power in some areas, which can create safety and reliability risk.

“As we pause to further understand the risks and identify solutions for our members, we know this may be disappointing for those who want to install solar in these areas,” said LPEA CEO Jessica Matlock in a news release. “First and foremost, it is our job to keep your lights on and to reduce fire and safety risks.”

The release said LPEA is now meeting 100% of its daytime electricity needs in the areas where new solar applications are not being accepted.

“One solar array on one house is enough to feed that house and its seven to 10 neighbors,” said Executive VP of Grid Solutions and Special Projects Dan Harms. “When you get enough of it out there … then all the load is been served and I don’t need any more generation. There’s no place for it to go.”

The map shows areas in red, where solar generation has reached capacity, as well as areas in orange and yellow, outlining where supplemental review is needed or will be needed soon. Applications for solar arrays in orange regions may be subject to a more thorough analysis, which could take more time and cost up to $500.

Lines on the map delineating the regions are drawn according to “feeders” that tie back to the same substation. While power can easily move to homes within a feeder, moving the power backward to a substation is more complex.

The announcement falls into the context of a broader fight to introduce more green energy into LPEA’s lines.

In 2019, LPEA began exploring the feasibility of escaping a restrictive contract with its wholesale energy supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. Under the terms of the contract, which remains in effect through 2050, LPEA must purchase 95% of its power from Tri-State, and local generation is limited to 5%.

Negotiations over a release or partial buyout have been fraught and reached a head last December when LPEA sued Tri-State alleging that the wholesaler was negotiating in bad faith.

A desire to use local, green, more reliable power has driven the push to exit the Tri-State contract.

However, the suspension of new solar applications was caused by limitations of the energy load, not contract constraints. LPEA’s contract prevents the co-op from generating more than 5% of its own power, but does not prohibit customers from generating their own power, Harms said.

“This milestone marks a positive advancement for the community and aligns with LPEA’s commitment to achieving carbon reduction goals,” LPEA said in its news release.

The co-op says it is working toward solutions that would still allow for the production of more local, green energy. Until an agreement is reached with Tri-State, LPEA will continue to pay an annual fee for any power produced that exceeds the 5% cap.

“LPEA is currently investigating various solutions with experts across the country to address the growing demand for solar energy, including homeowner-installed batteries, substation batteries, adoption of advanced technologies for energy management, and the establishment of Community Solar Gardens,” the release said.

An interactive map can be viewed at bit.ly/4bDue4V.


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