State’s Low-Income Community Solar Demo Serves As A National Model

The Colorado Energy Office (CEO) and nonprofit solar installer GRID Alternatives Colorado have announced the completion of a two‐year partnership focused on demonstrating the benefits of community solar for low‐income communities across the state. In 2015, CEO granted GRID $1.2 million to work with rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities to develop accessible, affordable community solar models that provide meaningful bill savings to subscribed customers and reduce household energy burden.

In Colorado, approximately 30% of households – many located in rural areas – are considered energy burdened, meaning they pay more than 4% of their income on utility bills. Of that 30% in Colorado, 11% are considered energy impoverished, paying more than 10% of their income on utility bills.

Focused on delivering meaningful savings to participating households, the low‐income community solar demonstration has successfully met the goals laid out by CEO. Working with eight utilities – Delta Montrose Electric Association, Empire Electric Association, Fort Collins Municipal Utility, Grand Valley Power, Holy Cross Energy, Poudre Valley Electric Association, San Miguel Electric Association and Yampa Valley Electric Association – the partnerships delivered nearly 1.4 MW of low‐income subscribed capacity benefits to more than 300 households annually and leveraged over $2 million in partner dollars.

“Many of Colorado’s residents struggle to pay their utility bills, and this demonstration was designed to explore partnerships that create new pathways to alleviate household energy burden,” says Kathleen Staks, executive director of CEO. “Once again, partners from all over the state stepped forward to build solutions for our communities.”

According to CEO, Colorado is widely regarded as the birthplace of the community solar concept, pioneered by United Power through a grant from the state agency. This statewide low‐income demonstration continued Colorado’s innovation culture around community solar to expand access to all communities. In 2015, Grand Valley Power and GRID created the nation’s first utility‐owned low‐income community solar array. CEO and GRID’s demonstration built on this effort and created a learning lab in which innovative approaches were tested and best practices developed to guide future state and national expansion. CEO says the demonstration’s findings have contributed to commitments from both Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy to develop an additional 21 MW of low‐income community solar in Colorado.

As project implementer for the demonstration, GRID partnered with utilities to develop appropriate product offerings, construct systems, conduct customer outreach, engage project volunteers and provide job training. The eight community solar projects selected were both affordable and scalable for utility partners, according to CEO.

“In working with a variety of utilities, we’ve been able to develop a flexible model for low-income community solar that can be used anywhere,” says Chuck Watkins, executive director of GRID Alternatives Colorado. “The investment from CEO has been a win for utilities and their stakeholders, a win for energy‐burdened households, and a win for solar access nationally.”

“The transformative impact in partnering with GRID Alternatives to build the country’s first utility‐owned community solar project dedicated to low‐income members not only helps our local communities in Colorado, it also forges a path for other communities across the nation,” says Tom Walch, CEO of Grand Valley Power. “The concept of serving members who would otherwise not be able to participate based on a number of limitations has been removed with this model.”

CEO says the demonstration with GRID has laid the groundwork for expansion of low‐income solar development across the country. Based on Colorado’s pioneering work, several states have already announced upcoming projects and many others are in development stages of similar programs, according to CEO.

“Colorado has proven once again to be an innovator in delivering collaborative solutions to challenging energy problems,” says Staks. “This demonstration shows that solutions are out there to lower energy costs, reduce carbon emissions and diversify our energy portfolio.”

Today, CEO, GRID and Green Valley Power are hosting a community event to celebrate the completion of the eight utility projects and conclusion of the Colorado demonstration. CEO plans to make a comprehensive evaluation of the demonstration, including history, policy agenda and implications, project details, and customer benefits, available this winter.

Photo courtesy of GRID Alternatives

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