Kit Carson Co-op aims for solar summers by 2022

Dan Weinman of PPC Solar is shown at a solar array west of Taos. The Kit Carson Electric Cooperative said it wants to add enough solar power to its grid to power every customer on sunny summer days with local arrays by 2022. Katharine Elgi/The Taos News

TAOS — The Kit Carson Electric Cooperative says it wants to serve all of its customers on sunny summer days with locally generated solar power by 2022.

Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes announced the goal during a recent presentation and unveiling of the co-op’s solar plan.

To hit that target, Reyes said, the co-op wants outside investors to build dozens of small solar arrays — about 1 megawatt each — across its service territory, and use those arrays to generate electricity to go directly to the co-op’s grid.

Kit Carson has been aggressive when it comes to adopting solar power, but contractual and technical limits have slowed the expansion of solar facilities in recent years.

With a new power contract in place and a new solar plan, the co-op now believes it can move toward a sun-fueled future.

By adding solar power in small increments, Reyes hopes to add substantial amounts of renewable energy without requiring major upgrades to existing infrastructure. “That size fits right onto our system,” he said, explaining that existing substations and transmission lines simply can’t handle larger facilities.

The co-op currently has access to about 5 megawatts of locally generated solar energy. On sunny days, consumers from Questa and north are already completely solar powered, Reyes said.

But under its solar plan, he said, the co-op wants 35 megawatts of solar generation capacity in six years, which would be enough power to serve all consumers when the sun is shining on summer days — the time of year when power demand from the co-op is at its lowest.

Reyes said engineering projections done so far suggest the grid would be able to absorb that much solar power. As new arrays come online, he said, it would be up to developers to determine what, if any, improvements are necessary to ensure reliability — for instance, when fast-moving clouds create intermittent solar production — and it would be up to developers to pay for them.

Right now, the co-op is already courting proposals from several investors for arrays in Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, Tres Piedras, El Prado and Los Cordovas.

Reyes said he’d like to see construction on those arrays begin next June or July and come online by the end of 2017.

There’s some urgency in putting the plan into motion, Reyes said, adding that there will likely be a lot more interest from developers ahead of 2022, when federal tax credits for solar arrays are set to expire.

The primary impetus for this new plan was Kit Carson’s exit from its former wholesale power supplier — Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

Denver-based Tri-State serves more than 40 electric co-ops in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and New Mexico. Under contracts with those co-ops that generally don’t expire until 2040, Tri-State limited local power generation to 5 percent of a individual co-op’s load.

Under the proposed plan, the co-op would see its local solar generation leap to 55 percent, based on current customer demand.

Tri-State argued that clause was necessary to ensure that it would sell enough electricity to remain solvent. But Kit Carson fought back, alleging the 5 percent limit was stifling the development of clean, local power.

Earlier this year, Kit Carson become the first co-op to buy out of its Tri-State contract. It found a new power supplier — Guzman Renewable Energy Partners — which agreed to front the $37 million exit fee charged by Tri-State to release Kit Carson.

According to Reyes, there are no longer limits on the co-op’s renewable energy goals.

“There really are no limits for renewable energy the way our contract is structured,” he said.

Last week’s solar announcements come as the co-op appears to be nearing the end of a contentious rate increase investigation. A decision on the proposed rate increase is expected to be made by state regulators in the coming weeks.

This story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister paper of The Santa Fe New Mexican.