Greg Brophy: Community solar projects are surging as consumers seek more choice – Greeley Tribune

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Choice and competition are hallmarks of well-functioning markets and conservative economic policies. But in the energy sector, increasing the amount of choice and competition available to consumers hasn’t been easy.

Historically, the electrical grid has been dominated by centralized, large-scale power plants. Homes and businesses didn’t have any choice in the matter; either they accepted the electricity from those big power plants, or they went without electricity.

In recent years, this has started to change. The introduction of market-friendly policies and falling technology costs have allowed homeowners and businesses to generate their own electricity. The most visible example is rooftop solar, but even this option has its limitations.

First, if you’re renting a home or leasing your place of business, then you don’t own the roof. But even in cases where the occupant of a home or business owns the building, not all rooftops are suitable for installing solar panels. Shade from nearby trees and buildings, along with other environmental factors, can effectively rule out the installation of solar panels in some cases.

Thankfully, however, an additional breakthrough in market-friendly energy policy has given people who can’t directly generate their own electricity another option. That breakthrough is known as community solar.

Through community solar programs, even those who can’t install solar panels on their own rooftops can subscribe to a much larger shared solar facility. Through the subscription, they are effectively buying a percentage of the facility’s electrical output. Then, that electrical output is credited toward the utility bill of the homeowner or the business owner who purchased the subscription.

Under this model, subscribers to a community solar project are able to take control of their own energy use without having to own a property that’s conducive to installing solar panels. And for grid operators, community solar creates a useful “in between” option that’s bigger than individual rooftop solar installations but smaller than the large-scale solar arrays that connect directly to the bulk power system.

The size of these community solar projects — which are sometimes called solar gardens — makes them suitable for both rural and suburban communities in Colorado. Since these projects come in all shapes and sizes and their popularity is taking off all across Colorado. The experience of Denver-based solar developer Pivot Energy really tells the story.

In 2022, Pivot Energy completed a total of seven community solar projects in Weld, Logan and Crowley counties. These projects, which have a cumulative generating capacity of 13 megawatts, signed up more than 1,700 households and businesses as subscribers. At the same time, the Weld RE-5J School District signed up as a subscriber, which is expected to save the district almost $400,000 in utility expenses over 20 years. In Weld County alone, these community solar projects are expected to generate $1.4 million in property taxes, most of which will go toward public education.

For its next major project, Pivot Energy is dramatically scaling up the community solar concept even further. The company was selected by Xcel Energy to build 41 megawatts of new community solar projects, which will also exclusively serve lower-income households.

As part of this new portfolio, Pivot Energy is taking their farm-friendly designs even further at a site in LaSalle that will feature solar energy production, food crop production and irrigation. The subsurface drip irrigation system maintains the landowner’s water rights, is expected to save 33% water usage, increase crop yields and lower the cost of production. At this initial solar cropping site, a local Weld County producer will cultivate in between and around the solar array which occupies about 32 acres of land. This new configuration will serve as a template that Pivot Energy hopes to replicate as they scale up community solar in Colorado.

To be sure, community solar projects still represent a small share of Colorado’s overall electric power portfolio. But it’s growing fast, because the policies around community solar are built on a solid foundation — providing more choice and competition to consumers.

As long as that foundation remains intact, you can expect to see more and more community solar projects being developed all over the state.

Greg Brophy of Wray is a farmer and former state senator. He is the Colorado director of The Western Way.

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