The Country’s First Community-Owned Solar Garden

Monday was a day for the solar history books.

The country’s first community-owned solar installation began delivering clean, renewable electricity to the grid in El Jebel, Colorado. The 340-panel solar installation is unique because it is owned by an array of local residents rather than any single person, utility, developer or corporation. The El Jebel “solar garden” represents a budding trend, pioneered in Colorado, toward community solar power. The benefits are many, including lower costs and the distribution of clean electricity from the sun.

Better yet, the El Jebel facility is built on otherwise unusable land in the Roaring Fork Valley. It will produce 77.7 kilowatts of solar power at peak. Year-round and seasonal residents of the valley purchased individual portions of the array, which was developed by Clean Energy Collective and grid-connected in partnership with local electric cooperative Holy Cross Energy. Holy Cross collects the power produced by the solar garden and then directly credits owners’ utility bill each month at a rate of $0.11/kWh, with some owners paying as little as $725 per panel, or $3.15/kW, up front.

“It’s great to get local renewable energy off the ground,” said Del Worley, CEO of Holy Cross Energy. The utility has plans to meet 20 percent of its power through renewable resources by 2015 — a goal more than twice as aggressive as statewide mandates for utility cooperatives in Colorado.

Clean Energy Collective (CEC) devised, promoted and developed the community-owned renewable energy installation, a specialty of the company, which itself is a member-owned cooperative venture focusing on building, developing and operating community-based clean energy stations. The El Jebel solar garden represents CEC’s first working model of a pathway to renewable energy it believes will spread like wildfire.

CEC predicts that the community solar breakthrough will increase regional solar adoption by 67 percent over the next five years.

The company has developed proprietary technology, known as RemoteMeter, that automatically calculates owners’ monthly credits and integrates with the utility’s billing system to ensure discounts are given easily and accurately for the renewable energy produced.

While the El Jebel community solar garden is the first of its kind in the nation, it is not the only solar garden on the way to Colorado. Two larger systems, a 900-kW system in Rifle and a 2-MW array near Vail, are already in the development or construction process. Upon completion, the Vail array will be the largest privately-owned solar installation in the state.

With power flowing from the El Jebel facility, community solar “gardening” is now officially a pathway to affordable solar power. But it also represents an opportunity for those typically left out of the solar movement — renters, condo residents or shaded homes — to adopt and save with solar energy, because the need to own a rooftop or large swath of land is now unnecessary.

Colorado and several other states have legislation or incentives that help promote community solar power, i.e. feed-in tariffs, net metering or equal eligibility under tax incentive programs, but support at the federal level would be ideal to facilitate a nationwide movement. For this reason, Colorado Senator Mark Udall introduced the Community Solar Gardens Bill in the U.S. Congress, which would legally allow homeowners to collectively install solar arrays in their neighborhoods; overriding any state legislation that may bar solar garden development.

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