Interview originally published June of 2016.
As the New Energy Program Coordinator for United Power Cooperative, Jerry Marizza played a central role in the collaboration between United Power and Silicon Ranch Corporation (SRC). Together, the partnership developed a unique solar energy solution to generate affordable, sustainable energy to rural, northern Colorado in an operationally manageable way. United is a nonprofit electric cooperative that provides electricity services to approximately 200,000 customer-members.
What prompted you to consider the addition of solar energy to your products/services?
Number one: the state of Colorado has a requirement for utilities to have a certain amount of renewable energy available, so it became a requirement for United Power to look into sources for renewable energy.
The solar project also made sense from a business point of view, since the money comes back to United Power. It benefits all co-op members by saving them money, so the members don’t need to have a personal priority on renewable energy. To many rural customers, renewable energy is synonymous with higher rates, which can create a negative connotation. However, if the solar solution can provide financial benefit to the company and the customers, then solar energy is a good solution, no matter where they stand on the other issues.
Why did you choose to work with Silicon Ranch?
With the field that was just turned on, the project started when United Power signed a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a middle developer, and then that developer found Silicon Ranch.
What surprised you or felt especially helpful about working with the Silicon Ranch team to reach your solar objectives?
It’s great to talk about solar and get hyped up about the benefits, but when it actually gets to the point of doing, it is essentially a very large construction project. I needed to feel comfortable that Silicon Ranch could manage a large construction project.
And of course, it comes to financing at some level. Did they have a finance person who was willing to do this project? What I’ve seen in the past is that the solar company can get all excited and prove that they’re capable of doing large projects, but when they bring it to the finance office, they say it won’t work. That wasn’t the case with Silicon Ranch.
Finally, Silicon Ranch stood out to me because they had someone who came from a utility. Understanding and talking utility speak is important, and Pete Candelaria provided that. The pure solar people often miss the importance of operational consistency — the quality and the need for avoiding fluctuation, since that directly affects customers. The fact that Silicon Ranch understood the utility’s need for quality and consistency was very helpful.
As I said previously, our relationship came about due to a middle man, so initially I was leery of an unknown (to me) developer performing on the PPA, but they persisted and kept with the process. And I’m glad they did — they met every hurdle that came up. Because they were able to pull this project off, we are going to do two more projects with them. At the end of the day, I wanted a successful project.
At this point, we are super comfortable with SRC. We each had to earn mutual trust. Our relationship was like an arranged marriage where we were thrown in the room together, but we worked on it, and it turned out well.
What did you learn during this process, that you didn’t know prior, about installing solar solutions?
As far as technology, the single axis tracker seems to be the new thing. I’m anxious to see how it works in the long term. The single axis tracker produces more energy, but it also introduces the possibility of more maintenance. I’m anxious to see how it works out.
Another surprise to me were the challenges related to securing land for the project. In our service territory, when we did the 2MW, which is about 20 acres, it was easy to find that amount of land where there wasn’t much hassle. When you get to 150-200 acres, it’s difficult to find a clear piece of land. I learned that with the larger acreage areas, the land can become an issue. SRC was able to negotiate with the oil and gas companies and also rearrange their layout to work around these obstacles. It was important to know that they had people ready to jump in and deal with these land issues.
How has your organization benefited from the solar solution(s) provided by Silicon Ranch?
We just came online, so right now we’re looking at both sides of the coin. We want to check for benefits and also any potential disruptions on the line. The good news at this point is that our engineers are happy with the benefits so far. To connect this large generation system at the distribution point is a big deal. At the end of the day, the utility has to physically operate the grid and ensure it is as stable and smooth as anything, because that is what customers expect. It’s more than throwing power on the line — it’s about the quality of that energy.
One area that Silicon Ranch really stood out was in the requirement we have with our wholesaler that no energy can backfeed onto the transmission lines. What I mean is that if we’re generating 13 MW, and the retail load goes down to 12MW, I don’t have any way to store that extra MW. Usually the power would go backward into the transmission lines, and my transmission provider will not allow me to do that. Previously I would have to shut the whole field down to avoid that situation. So what SRC helped us work out is that we’re able to curtail the generation capacity without turning the whole field off. We’re able to throttle it back, essentially, which is necessary only 1% of the time. But that load following strategy is really valuable to me because it makes it easier to provide reliable power to our customers.
What advice or encouragement would you give to an organization that’s considering integrating solar?
To the extent that you can deal with the ultimate company that does construction, financing, and the whole package is really beneficial. If you can avoid working with the middle man, that is better. Being able to work with the actual company who does the work and owns it, finances it, and builds it gives you more flexible options. You can then hone in on exactly what you need and who can provide it.
What would you like readers to know about United Power?
As a cooperative, United Power must constantly balance the interests of our members, employees, and communities in order to provide the most economical and reliable power while limiting our impact on the environment. United Power is committed to using the earth’s resources wisely, supporting the advancement of emerging technologies, and helping our members to use energy as efficiently as possible.