National

Solar energy in Colo. puts gas into shadows

DURANGO, Colo. —The sun had just crested the distant ridge of the Rocky Mountains, but already it was producing enough power for the electric meter on the side of the Smiley Building to spin backward.

For the Shaw brothers, who converted the downtown arts building and community center into a miniature solar power plant two years ago, each reverse rotation subtracts from their monthly electric bill. It also means the building at that moment is producing more electricity from the sun than it needs.

"Backward is good," said John Shaw, who runs Shaw Solar and Energy Conservation, a local solar installation company.

Good for whom?

As La Plata County in southwestern Colorado looks to shift to cleaner sources of energy, solar is becoming the power source of choice even though it still produces only a small fraction of the region's electricity. It's being nudged along by tax credits and rebates, a growing concern about the gases heating up the planet, and the region's plentiful sunshine.

The natural gas industry, which produces more gas here than nearly every other county in Colorado, has been relegated to the shadows.

With the county and city drawing up plans to reduce the emissions blamed for global warming and Congress weighing the first mandatory limits, the industry once again finds itself on the losing side of the debate.

A recent greenhouse-gas inventory of La Plata County found that the thousands of natural gas pumps and processing plants dotting the landscape are the single largest source of heat-trapping pollution locally.

That has the industry bracing for a hit on two fronts if federal legislation passes.

First, it will have to reduce emissions from its production equipment to meet pollution limits, which will drive up costs. Second, as the county's largest consumer of electricity, gas companies probably will see energy bills rise as the local power cooperative is forced to cut gases released from its coal-fired power plants or purchase credits from other companies that reduce emissions.

"Being able to put solar systems on homes is great, you take something off the grid, it is as good as conserving," said Christi Zeller, the executive director of the La Plata Energy Council, a trade group representing about two dozen companies that produce the methane gas trapped within coal buried underground.

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