Springs’ solar market looks bright in 2012

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The Environmental Defense Fund says Colorado farmers and ranchers could reap big economic rewards by installing such things as solar panels on their land.

Colorado Springs’ solar industry took a few big steps forward in 2011 and appears poised for even more advances in 2012.

Solar gardens, tax rebates and policy changes are all anticipated to expedite the industry in the coming year.

SunShare, a start-up founded by 24-year-old Colorado College graduate David Amster-Olszewski, was the first in the state to establish a community solar garden since the Colorado legislature passed a bill to make them easier to develop in 2010.

While the SunShare garden at Venetucci Farm was the first solar garden in Colorado Springs, it will not be the last. There are already plans for two others.

School District 11 and Clean Energy Collective from Carbondale both have plans to start new 500-kilowatt solar gardens in 2012, said Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman David Grossman.

The SunShare solar garden shined a spotlight on solar in 2011 that drove demand, Grossman said.

SunShare offered 20-year leases of solar panels at $550 each. The panels are installed in a community garden at Venetucci Farm and the energy they produce is credited to the residents’ energy bills.

The utility awarded more than $777,000 to 287 residential customers who leased panels in the garden and $218,000 to six educational institutions, Grossman said.

Rocky Mountain Solar owner Lotus, who insists on going by one name only, said he planned to send a holiday gift to Amster-Olszewski to thank him for all the marketing he did for the solar industry

“We have had a lot of people who heard about the solar garden and wondered what their options were,” Lotus said.

Dozens of people have called Rocky Mountain Solar looking for price comparisons between roof-mounted solar arrays and solar gardens, which is good for business, Lotus said.

“The economics are far better for a home installation if somebody has available space on a south- or near south-facing roof,” Lotus said.

He calculated a comparison for one homeowner and found that it would cost about $13,000 to install enough panels to cover nearly 100 percent of the power usage on the owner’s roof and it would cost almost $20,000 to buy enough panels in SunShare’s garden to cover the 14,500 kilowatt hours the owner consumes per year.

“But for people who don’t have that south-facing roof or who don’t own or don’t have the money to put down or the borrowing power, the solar garden is a good option,” Lotus said.

JoLyn Newcomb, who owns Florence-based AC Solar had a great year in Colorado Springs. The company installed 16 residential solar systems in Colorado Springs in 2011 — the most of any installer, Newcomb said.

Newcomb also credits increased business to SunShare and the attention garnered for the solar industry.

She’s looking forward to a solid 2012. There’s a lot of momentum and energy focused on solar now and panel prices have dropped enough to make solar appealing to more people, she said.

“Over the six years I’ve been doing this, the motivation for why people go solar has changed,” Newcomb said. “It used be environmental, now it’s usually straight-up financial or for security reasons.”

She said most of her Colorado Springs customers are conservative, forward-looking people who want the long-term cost savings or just the sense of security that comes with producing their own power on site.

The utility is dropping its rebate from $2 per watt to $1.80 per watt in 2012.

“We always try to provide a rebate or incentive to cover about 30 percent of the cost for our customers,” Grossman said. “And the cost to install solar has come down a lot over the last year.”

He said the lower rebate amount should also allow the utility to offer it to more customers without increasing the $1.5 million budgeted to solar rebates.

The utility went over that budget in 2011 and had to reallocate unused rebates from its energy efficiency program to cover more than $2.1 million in solar incentives to home and business owners who installed solar or participated in the community solar garden this year. That number represents tremendous growth.

“Last year, 2010 was the first year we used all of the money in the solar rebate,” Grossman said.

But there was only $750,000 allocated to the program that year. The utility doubled its commitment to renewable energy rebates in 2011 and went over its $1.5 million budget by more than $600,000.

If the Clean Energy Collective and District 11 solar garden projects both sell out in 2012, they will gobble up more than the $1.5 million designated to solar rebates before individual homeowners are even factored into the equation.

Grossman said the utility is urging those interested in solar to act early in the year.

“We don’t know for sure until we get there, what we’ll do,” he said. “We can’t really count on borrowing from the energy efficiency rebate. But as long as we stay within our overall budget, there may be some other unused funds we can transfer.”

He said it’s hard to know if the two new solar garden projects will be as popular as the SunShare one was.

“Those were really some of the early adapters,” Grossman said.

But he added that District 11 will have a captive audience of students and parents. And the Clean Energy Collective is looking to make national headlines by building on a landfill.

The collective, which started two large solar garden projects on the Western Slope several years ago through a partnership with Holly Cross Energy, is prepared to break ground in January, said chief operating officer Mark Boyer.

“We’re currently in final negotiations with the EPA, Colorado Brownfields and the landowner,” Boyer said. “We’re trying to make good community use of land that is hard to make use of these days.”

While plenty of solar has been installed on landfills, this will likely be the first community solar garden on a landfill in the country, Boyer said.

While solar gardens present good opportunities for homeowners and schools, businesses will have a tougher time going solar in 2012.

They are not welcome in the Colorado Springs’ solar gardens. They have to pay property tax on the panels, and the accelerated depreciation of the cost of installing solar on Federal income tax goes from one year to five years in 2012.

Newcomb said the property tax issue is one the state legislature should take up this year. It’s hard on solar gardens because they are considered commercial businesses and have to pay property tax on the panels. And it’s hard on regular businesses that want to install solar.

“It’s a really hard sell for commercial in Colorado,” she said. “It’s hard to make the numbers work.”