Solar array, storage facility adds to Colorado Mountain College’s sustainability legacy
A Wednesday, Sept. 14 ribbon-cutting on the new 4.5-megawatt solar array and battery storage complex at Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus signaled a full circle trip around the sun for local solar installer Scott Ely.
He recalls attending a solar retrofit program at the college in 1987, before going on to start his own company, Carbondale-based Sunsense Solar, a few years later.
At the time, CMC was one of only a few higher education institutions in the country pioneering a solar-technology program.
Today, an extension of those early efforts is the college’s bachelor of arts degree program in sustainability studies and a general focus on the environment, including a commitment to be carbon neutral across its 11 campuses by 2050.
“CMC’s foresight 35 years ago is now coming to fruition,” Ely said. His small company of 30 employees, which has now been in business for over 32 years, is an example of that success, he said.
“This project is certainly one of our grandest accomplishments to date,” he said during a formal ceremony at CMC-Spring Valley celebrating the near completion of what, for a short time anyway, will be Colorado’s largest solar array and battery-storage facility.
Sunsense was selected as the solar engineering and construction contractor through a unique partnership between CMC, local rural electric cooperative Holy Cross Energy, and solar developer and financing agent Ameresco of Framingham, Massachusetts.
Carbondale nonprofit Clean Energy Economy for the Region facilitated the partnership arrangement. Representatives for each of the partners were on hand for the Wednesday event.
The project comprises more than 13,500 solar modules spread across 22 acres of leased CMC land west of the main college campus, including both fixed panels and those that can track the sun from morning until night.
The 4.5 megawatt generating capacity is enough to offset 100% of the electricity use of 1,000 homes or the three CMC campuses at Spring Valley, Aspen and Edwards, which are within the Holy Cross service area.
What makes the project especially unique is its battery-power storage system, Holy Cross President and CEO Bryan Hannegan said.
The complex includes 68 battery stacks in four on-site shipping-type containers that allow for five megawatts, or 15-megawatt hours, of power to be stored for backup during outages and peak demand times, he said.
“For us, it offers a measure of control and flexibility over the solar output that we don’t have with a normal solar array,” Hannegan said. “In a pinch, if there’s a nearby wildfire or a major outage on the system, this (storage) system is sufficient to keep powering the campus and keep people safe and comfortable.”
For at least another six months or so, the CMC facility will be the largest of its kind in Colorado. Coming quickly on its heels are even larger solar generation and storage projects in western Garfield County, he noted.
“This is an important part of our collective journey to a clean energy future, both for Holy Cross members and more importantly for CMC and the community college system that it supports,” Hannegan said.
In addition to CMC’s carbon neutrality goal, Holy Cross has a goal to provide 100% of its member power needs using renewable energy sources by 2030.
“Our aim is to really think more holistically about what it means to provide sustainable energy for the people we serve and work with,” Hannegan said. “It’s more than just one item here, one item there. It’s actually thinking about how we use things like solar energy and battery storage to power our lives.”
Wednesday’s event also included a pre-recorded video message from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
“Protecting Colorado’s way of life means doing our part to combat climate change and improve air quality,” Polis said. “It’s projects like the one we celebrate today that will make that possible.”
Added CMC President and CEO Carrie Besnette Hauser: “This collaboration is a shining example of that ethos as we work together to reduce our carbon emissions and protect these amazing mountain landscapes that we all love from the very real threat of climate change.”
CMC sustainability studies student Lily Leyva had the honor of cutting the ceremonial ribbon.
“I believe I can speak for all students here today when I say that we are excited to be here as CMC and partners make history,” she said. “As students, we appreciate the networking opportunities and real-world projects like this that you’ve brought to the table.”
The solar array and storage project has been under construction for three years and is about 95% complete. It is expected to come online before the end of the year.
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