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The future is bright for solar field in Fort Lupton

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$25 million solar farm provides power to region

By Tony White

Jerry Marizza at United Power Inc. doesn’t care if you believe in global warming or not – he says solar farms just make good business sense.

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A new 13-megawatt solar farm east of Fort Lupton near Colorado Highway 52 is expected to stabilize future customer rates, for example, said Marizza, energy program coordinator at United Power, which has offices in Fort Lupton, Brighton and Golden.

The $25 million solar farm started generating power on May 25. It’s projected to produce 30 million kilowatts of power annually, or about enough to power 3,100 homes.

“You don’t have to believe in global warming. Do you believe in lower electric rates?” Marizza asked, rhetorically. “If you’re an environmentalist, you love it. If you’re an anti-environmentalist, you still love it because it helps stabilize rates.”

Solar farms tend to “flatten out the cost of electricity” by offsetting any future potential price increases from coal or natural gas, Marizza said. Customer bills are not expected to immediately go down because of the new solar farm, though, he said.

In the past, United Power purchased all of its energy from Tri-State Generation, a large, multi-state wholesaler in the region, which sells power from coal, natural gas, wind and solar energy.

In comparison to a coal-fired power plant or a natural gas supply, solar farms have relatively low-maintenance needs once they are built, Marizza said.

The 130-acre Fort Lupton solar farm has 150,000 single-axis tracker panels, which follow the sun’s path, creating 30 percent more energy than a fixed system. Silicon Ranch Corp. built the farm, which is projected to provide energy to Fort Lupton and surrounding communities, as well the region’s oil and gas industry.

United Power’s inspiration to pursue the Fort Lupton solar field project was twofold:  meet the state’s requirement for rural energy providers to use 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 and find cheaper energy sources. Marizza says solar energy hits both marks for the company.

Using renewable energy sources are a practical strategy, but they can’t meet all of the demand, said Fort Lupton Mayor Tommy Holton.

“Energy needs to come from somewhere, but it’s going to be real tough to depend on solar or wind completely,” Holton said.

Solar energy still has vulnerabilities, Marizza said. For example, United Power cannot currently use solar as a singular source of energy as it would natural gas, which can generate power around the clock. Fewer on-site jobs are created by solar farms, too, he said.

United Power serves about 75,000 electricity meters, representing about 200,000 customers from Golden Gate Canyon to the west, to Fort Lupton, Hudson and Keenesburg to the east. The coop currently has three renewable energy projects in operation and two more solar farms planned for the region.