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Community Gardens Transform Colorado's Solar Industry

Tuesday, September 4th 2012 10:45 AM
By GetSolar Staff.
Community Gardens Transform Colorado's Solar Industry To help make solar power available to a wider demographic, the Centennial State has pioneered a community solar garden program in which multiple subscribers can get electricity from one Colorado solar installation. While many states have enacted similar solar net metering plans, The Rocky Mountain State's initiative is unique in its success at generating solar energy for an increasing number of people.

How Colorado's Plan Works
While Colorado solar installers can put in photovoltaic panels on many rooftops in the state, not all area residents can reap the benefits of PV power. For those that have a shady rooftop, not enough available space or not enough money to afford new panels, solar energy is not a realistic option.

That is where community gardens come in. Coloradans who cannot put in a personal PV installation instead chip in for a percentage of the energy generated from one larger project. In Colorado, at least 10 people need to chip in to pay for the project, and all contributors get a percentage of the solar renewable energy credits generated by the solar garden. According to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), those opting in to a community garden pay either 11 cents or 14 cents per kilowatt-hour from utility Xcel Energy for electricity from the power system.

"Community solar power can offer unique benefits in the expansion of solar power, from greater participation and ownership of solar to a greater dispersion of the economic benefits of harnessing the sun’s energy," the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) wrote in a September 2010 report.

Xcel Energy must buy 6 megawatts of electricity from community installations by 2013, with 3 of those megawatts coming from power systems smaller than 500 kilowatts. In addition, 5 percent of all community garden output must be reserved for low-income residents, the ILSR reported in 2011.

The ILSR reported in August that while states such as California have or are considering community solar power programs, Colorado's initiative is unique in its scope. For example, other states have guidelines dictating the types of customers that can benefit from community gardens, Colorado does not. The state's only main caveat is that homeowners, businesses and others obtaining power from a community project must be located within the same county as the installation.

Example Success Stories
In the two years that the state has had its community solar garden policy in place, it has proven to be quite popular with residents. According to the ILSR, in August Xcel Energy opened up applications for an additional 9 megawatts of community power. Within 30 minutes, the power company sold all of its available permits. DSIRE reported that the utility in total received requests for three times the amount of community solar power permitting available.

One of the largest community gardens in Colorado is a 5-acre installation at Garfield County Regional Airport in Rifle in the western part of the state. The project, online since last year, has 3,575 PV panels and can generate about 1,500 megawatt-hours a year, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent reported.

"We are leveraging scalability to the benefit of each individual panel owner," Paul Spencer, president of Colorado's Clean Energy Collective, said to the publication. "Our structure allows members to receive all of the rebates and tax incentives of home-sited systems. You don't even need a roof to adopt clean energy today, and the paybacks are higher than ever, both for the environment and financially."

One of the most recent community gardens put in by Colorado solar installers is the 494-panel project in Windsor. That northern Colorado installation will provide about 116,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually for its 21 subscribers, according to InnovatioNews.

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