Energy credits began flowing for a few hundred households and a handful of schools Wednesday as a community solar garden at Venetucci Farms moved from testing and tweaking to full operation.

That means the individuals and organizations leasing panels will soon see a discount on their electric bills.

The solar array is the largest project of its kind in the country to be 100 percent subscribed, according to SunShare, which runs the solar garden.

The Colorado Springs School leased the last 509 panels available, giving it the largest share of the array. That will cover a quarter of the private school’s electrical energy needs.

“This is a bill we’re going to pay anyway,” said Kevin Reel, head of school. The solar panels are more cost effective, he said, and energy costs will only increase over time.

Donors covered the cost, he said, adding that feedback has been positive from parents. The school has long had ties to Venetucci Farm, and this is one more reason for students to visit and learn, he said.

“It demonstrates the school’s commitment to making innovative decisions with the well-being of the community and future generations in mind,” Reel said.

The SunShare community solar garden at Venetucci Farm has 2,500 solar panels on 2½ acres.

The panels are not taking the place of crops, and animals may graze around them.

Instead of putting solar panels on top of their own roof, people buy or lease panels in the large, central solar project, then receive credit on their utility bills for the power generated by the panels.

In the past few years, only 30 to 50 homes have gone solar per year, according to SunShare.

The leases for solar panels at the Venetucci Solar Garden are for two to more than 500 panels. With rebates and other programs, each panel cost about $550, SunShare Founder and President David Amster-Olszewski said.

“I’ve been blown away by the interest,” he said.

The company has taken reservations for almost half of its second planned project in Colorado Springs.

Amster-Olszewski, a Colorado College graduate, said he wasn’t expecting to have all the panels spoken for so fast. The city approved the plan in September, and construction on the solar array was finished in January.

Manitou Springs High School students raised the money needed to lease several panels, he said, organizing fundraisers and taking up collections.

Reel said choosing solar power sends a message to students, and the community. Colorado Springs has a lot of traits that will allow solar gardens to work well, including climate and a flexible utility, he said.

Other states and utility companies are looking into the concept that the Colorado Springs City Council approved, Amster-Olszewski said.

SunShare estimates that the 300 participants at Venetucci Farm will see a savings of about $2.5 million over the next 20 years.

Contact Kristina Iodice: 636-0162 Twitter @GazetteKristina Facebook Kristina Iodice