More solar gardens sprouting up in the Springs

August 7, 2012
photo - In this Nov. 29, 2011 file photo, Sarah Rice, foreground, and Garrett Jacobs with SunShare help Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, place a solar panel at the solar garden at Venetucci Farm. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
In this Nov. 29, 2011 file photo, Sarah Rice, foreground, and Garrett Jacobs with SunShare help Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, place a solar panel at the solar garden at Venetucci Farm. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

It’s been almost a year since the Colorado Springs City Council approved community solar gardens, allowing anyone in the city to buy or lease solar panels in a central installation and receive a credit on their home electric bill.

The program has hit some potholes along the way, but the first, 500-kilowatt solar array, built by local company SunShare at Venetucci Farm, is sold out and more projects are in the works.

Councilwoman Brandy Williams said she thinks the program has been a tremendous success.

“I think it helped the utility to see that it really can be done and it helped the public see that government can partner with the private sector,” Williams said. “It’s been exciting. It’s brought the community together and people are now getting solar who never dreamed of getting solar.”

SunShare is planning to begin construction this month on a second solar garden a few miles from Venetucci at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church and already has commitments for most of the panels there.

A second company, Carbondale-based Clean Energy Collective, plans to begin a project in September on land it’s leasing around a Colorado Springs Utilities substation near I-25 and South Academy Boulevard. If the first project goes well, CEC plans to build a second solar garden on the same site.

Although it’s taken some time to get started, Clean Energy Collective’s founder Paul Spencer said he’s confident there will be plenty of demand for the project.

“We’re definitely bullish on feeling the project will sell out as it should,” he said.

SunShare president David Amster-Olszewski said he hopes to pursue a third project near Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in partnership with School District 11, although doing so would require City Council to modify the solar garden ordinance.

“It’s a great partnership with District 11 that we want to proceed with as well,” Amster-Olszewski said.

There have been hiccups in the program: CEC had to abandon its earlier bid to build a solar farm atop an old landfill at Woodmen and Powers boulevards because the site was outside Utilities’ service area. Several other companies that expressed interest in building solar farms have dropped out.

City Council approved a total of 2 megawatts of solar gardens, with no company being able to take more than half that capacity. That means that if SunShare and CEC sell out their currently approved projects, the original program will be finished. Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman said there are so far no plans to extend or expand the solar garden program.

“It’s a pilot program and we’ll want to do a thorough analysis before making big changes,” he said in an e-mail.

Williams said she hopes City Council, acting as the Utilities board, will continue the program.
“I think the potential definitely exists to expand it,” she said.

Both SunShare and CEC are also looking beyond Colorado Springs. Xcel Energy is about to launch a solar garden program in response to the 2010 Colorado Community Solar Gardens Act that authorized community solar projects. Black Hills Energy is also working on a solar garden program.

Xcel provides service to 55 percent of the state and its solar garden program would total 18 megawatts through 2013, so it’s potentially a much bigger market than the Colorado Springs pilot project. Spencer said he’s expecting something of a land rush as different solar companies try to grab pieces of the available allotment.

“It’ll be a little bit crazy, because there will be a lot of applications for not a lot of awarded sites,” he said.

SunShare recently hired a Denver representative to focus on the market there. Amster-Olszewski said the rules for the Xcel territory will make it easier for customers to participate, since they can make monthly payments instead of writing a single, lump sum check, and easier on the solar garden companies, since the projects would be open to businesses and other organizations, whereas Colorado Springs Utilities limits its program to individuals and schools.

“We hope to have between three and five projects up and running in Xcel territory in the next 12 months,” Amster-Olszewski said.

Contact Andrew Wineke: 636-0275 Twitter @awineke
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