By Jennie Lay
Installing one solar system to generate electricity doesn’t change the world. But it does change awareness. Northwest Colorado hopes to grow this awareness through a solar garden.
The Yampa Valley is slated to plant a 570-kilowatt solar garden this year – an array of about 2,000 photovoltaic panels installed together on a single five-acre site. The individual panels will be owned by any Yampa Valley Electric Association customers who want to purchase them – leveling the playing field for “going solar” because anyone can buy a panel, whether they own real estate or not. The panel stays put while their living arrangements remain flexible: No roof required to begin harvesting and using solar energy.
Federal and state mandates for renewable energy are increasing over time. “YVEA at this point is greater than 14% renewable,” says Todd Chapman, the electricity co-op’s consumer accounts manager. “We are the greenest co-op in the state. No one else even comes close. But we still have members attending the board meeting and asking for more renewable options.” Last October, YVEA’s meeting saw record public attendance, all speaking in favor of a solar garden. A renter who can’t install solar on his landlord’s property, a commercial property owner lacking the proper roof structure, and a retirement complex were among the vocal supporters.
“The more people are aware of the energy they use, the more we are going to reduce consumption. The solar garden will give people opportunities to use renewable energy and, in theory, they will use less energy,” says Steamboat Springs PV expert Tim McCarthy, owner of Brightside Solar.
Detailed negotiations between YVEA and Clean Energy Collective (the Boulder-based company contracted to create the garden) are ongoing and confidential – but neither side doubts the solar garden will break ground this year. It will be mounted at ground level, in a fixed position with no moving parts, and close to existing power lines for easy interconnection with the electricity grid. The location needs to be relatively flat with direct southern exposure – a site that CEC has apparently found in Craig. Craig’s city council unanimously endorsed and signed a letter of intent to lease 4.5 acres at 880 West First St. for $12,000 per year over 50 years.
Transition Steamboat founder Paul Potyen sparked the idea for Steamboat’s solar garden when he brought CEC founder Paul Spencer to speak at Olympian Hall a couple years ago. This was the tipping point in changing how YVEA’s 26,000 co-op members think, says Yampa Valley Sustainability Council board member Jeff Troeger, who applauds a philosophical shift in YVEA’s board during the past couple elections; they voted unanimously for the solar garden.
Costs to buy into a solar garden typically range from $500 to $800 per panel, says CEC executive Tom Sweeney. The Yampa Valley’s buy-in price will depend upon final engineering and whether YVEA pays an up-front rebate.
A solar garden offers an opportunity to make a foray into solar electricity without having to buy an entire system. Those who can afford one panel are still offsetting a portion of their electricity use, and CO2 emissions, that might otherwise have come from coal-fired power. By comparison, an average grid-tied Steamboat homeowner spends about $20,000 to install a complete rooftop solar array – and going off the grid completely generally sets a Routt County resident back about $35,000.
While financial details are yet to be announced as of press time, there are already viable models around the state. Holy Cross Energy offers a utility bill credit for power produced from their two solar gardens at 11.9 cents per kWh, versus their 9.1 cents per kWh retail rate. In addition, they rebate $1.50 per purchased panel watt up front. San Miguel Power Association credits bills 11.5 cents per kWh, but their rate is higher at 13 cents – and that co-op pays an up-front rate of $1.25 per purchased panel watt.
“YVEA has been very progressive about this and we’re confident customers are going to be very happy,” Sweeney says. An average Steamboat home would want 10-12 panels to offset its electricity use.
While CEC’s expertise is negotiating with utilities and designing the PV installations, possibilities remain for local companies to contract for the installation and ongoing maintenance. “These guys have a really innovative idea,” McCarthy says. “They provide a solar solution that’s hard to beat.”
YVSC Executive Director Sarah Jones says her organization will help educate people in the community as to what the solar garden is all about, and how to buy in. “We’re trying to promote renewable energy and conservation – this is part of our education role in our community,” she says. “This is totally new and they’ve had to work through a lot of details of the unknown. The first one will be the hardest.”