The Crestone Eagle • July, 2020
Crestone Mountain Zen Center goes solar
by Larry Joseph Calloway
When the 132 solar panels went online at 50 kilowatts in late June at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center it was a milepost (or more appropriately, lamppost) for a project that director Christian Dillo began four years ago.
His resolve was, and is, to make the 12-building Zen campus a “Zero Carbon” habitat on a hill, meaning it would no longer contribute to the increasing carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. The main cause of this pollution is combustion of fossil fuels.
“In our time of climate crisis,” Dillo said in an internet posting thanking some 200 donors to the cause, “one can feel powerless and frustrated when it comes to answering the question of how to effectively counteract global warming.” But the Director, also a Zen teacher, said: “When change on the micro level is satisfying and beautiful, it can be contagious.”
The array of photovoltaic panels like wide doors slanted toward the sun has its internal beauty, and Dillo and builder-electrician Josh Wilfong seemed satisfied as they surveyed it just before the state electrical inspector arrived (it passed).
So now electrons sparked by the sun shining on the spread are feeding into the San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative lines, offsetting electricity generated by Tristate Generation’s coal-fired power plants. The payoff is the “net metering” scheme that bills utility customers (or pays them) according to the difference between the power fed to the co-op and power purchased from the coop. Once a year, the customer pays for surplus consumption at the retail rate or receives a payment at the wholesale rate should there be overproduction.
Dillo says the Zen Center’s electric bills were totaling about $10,000 a year, and the hope was that net metering would save that much. A new co-op rate structure emphasizing demand rather than use has been modified temporarily but will potentially resume in some form next April under an agreement between Crestone petitioners and the co-op.
Echoing the complaint of the Annie Pace petitioners and the Town of Crestone, Dillo said, “It was sprung on us without warning. It completely changed our planning. I had no idea the rate change was coming. It will be a little sad if demand charges go up again.”
But he was philosophical. “This did not start out with the idea of saving money. It is our responsibility to reduce the carbon footprint. We started out with that.”
The solar installation cost $132,000, paid by donors and a unique federal incentive. And another $14,000 went to Bold Legal LLC, a corporate law firm based in Denver and Boulder. The numbers show the legal fee was worth it.
Attorney Allessandro Sacerdoti of the firm representing the Zen Center put in place a rare agreement that allows the center to benefit from the federal Investment Tax Credit for solar installations—even though it is a tax-exempt non profit. A Zen friend took the credit, worth 30% of the solar installation cost, assuming temporary ownership of the installation for six years, as required by law. The proceeds, including an additional 15% depreciation benefit, were given entirely to the Zen Center. Usually, Sacerdoti said, this exchange is done between for-profit utility companies and big banks, who split the proceeds. The arrangement was made in 2019 to take advantage of the full 30% tax credit, which is now decreasing each year by prior legislation.
Already done in the pursuit of Zero Carbon—and paid by another $28,000 in earlier donations—was the rebuilding of a drafty dorm into separate well insulated bedrooms with double-glazed windows, the replacement of some 300 light bulbs with LEDs, the hanging of insulating blinds on 65 windows, the installation of 16 programmable remote controlled thermostats, and the harvesting of firewood.
The on-site firewood idea is peculiarly local because of the area’s overgrown pinyon-juniper forest. In fire-mitigation work last year on four acres between the road and buildings volunteer workers produced seven cords of firewood. That’s enough to stoke the five campus heating stoves for a year, and Dillo said this could go on for 10 years. Locally harvested firewood that would otherwise be waste is considered as having a very low carbon impact. Three stoves will continue to heat the main building, a picturesque but retrograde rock structure with poor insulation.
Most heating systems in the campus buildings are fueled by propane, and Dillo said the propane bill is another $10,000 a year. The next big project will be fuel conversion, propane to electric heaters. This will be expensive because the existing wiring and breaker boxes will have to be amped up to carry larger loads.
And then the campus will be virtually “All Electric!” as the sales pitch by investor-owned utilities went fifty years ago. The bulk of electricity then as in this region now was from fossil fuels. But things have changed. Dillo and his consulting engineers have calculated that the now completed net-metered 50 kilowatt array will mean that 75% of the Zen Center’s energy use (electrical and propane combined) is clean—no carbon.
The original plan was for 100%, but the project was cut in half when SLVREC introduced charges for demand. The rate change meant the Zen Center could not save enough to make payments on the contemplated bank loan necessary to build the additional 50 solar kilowatts that would have made it completely carbon neutral.
The project is still the biggest private solar installation anywhere around Crestone. Wilfong, who grew up here and learned the electrical trade from his father, says about a quarter of his work these days is solar, and the Zen Center job was his biggest so far. Some potential new solar customers have hung back until the rates are certain but many are going ahead because of “their lifestyle,” he said.
Solar installations are now so common in the world that they are, as Wilfong put it, “plug and play.” But the site at the Zen Center produced some challenges all its own. Excavator Mark Potter of Crestone had an extra week of backhoe work because the site turned out to be a kind of buried boulder field.
And because the site is 475 feet from the new hardware—inverters, meters, transformer—and the campus grid, there was some hard backhoe work for the connecting cables. They are buried in three conduits, and Wilfong put in two more for a future expansion of the array. But the first half is finished, and the solar panels are delivering 450 volts DC to the inverters that turn it into 240 volts AC.
Dillo hopes other spiritual centers will think about Zero Carbon. Lawyer Sacerdoti says he will help them get the solar tax credit. Wilfong is busy but available too. Due to the current restrictions on gatherings, there was no ceremony planned for when the solar installation went online. But the satisfying, beautiful installation is contagious without a lot of promotion.