SunShare, the Colorado Springs-based developer of community solar gardens, has opened an office in Denver and plans a third location in California as it ramps up efforts to make solar power accessible to more residences and businesses.
SunShare's Denver office, which opened last month, employs six people. SunShare founder and president David Amster-Olszewski said Friday he expects the office will add five more by January.
The opening of the Denver office comes on the heels of two decisions in recent months by Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy Inc. to contract with SunShare to build and develop solar gardens in Adams, Arapahoe, Denver and Jefferson counties.
In addition, Amster-Olszewski said, SunShare plans to open a California office by March in anticipation of a major expansion of solar programs in that state. The office will employ two people to start, he said.
SunShare's moves, which include this fall's hiring of former Colorado Springs School head Kevin Reel as the general manager of the Springs office, point to momentum in the solar industry and for solar gardens such as those that SunShare develops, he said.
Solar gardens - buoyed in Colorado by a 2010 state law that promotes them as a viable energy source - are centralized groups of solar panels that take the place of thousands of small individual rooftop systems.
SunShare develops the systems for residential, commercial and governmental customers who want access to the renewable energy, but don't want or can't accommodate the rooftop equipment.
SunShare has 13 megawatts of solar gardens built, under development or awarded in the Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins areas.
"What's unique about community solar is that utilities are recovering the cost of their power lines, which you don't get from rooftop solar," Amster-Olszewski said. "That's what's kind of a breakthrough in the solar industry. Utilities all around the country are trying to figure out how to make solar work."
The city of Colorado Springs has worked with SunShare, although the relationship has gone back and forth.
City Council members agreed in September 2011 to launch a community solar garden pilot program. Colorado Springs Utilities customers were allowed to lease panels in solar gardens and transfer that energy into Utilities' electric system; in return, customers would receive credits on their electric bills for the energy they produce by their lease of the panels.
An expansion of the program was scrapped by a newly elected council in April, which felt the program would be too costly for ratepayers. In August, however, the council voted to approve a scaled-back expansion of the program that would cost ratepayers $4.9 million over 20 years instead of the original $22 million.
When the City Council balked at the expansion of the program, Amster-Olszewski, a Colorado College graduate, considered moving his company out of Colorado Springs, he said Friday. He considered other cities - including Denver, San Francisco and Sacramento - and said it was 50-50 at one point that he'd move.
"It does make it difficult when you have public policy that goes back and forth on a weekly basis," he said.
However, Amster-Olszewski said he decided to keep his office in the Springs because he likes the city's quality of life. And the new council's decision to ultimately back the solar garden program "definitely made a difference," he said.
A report this week in another Colorado Springs media outlet said SunShare was leaving the city and setting up "a national headquarters" in Denver; Amster-Olszewski said the report is wrong, and SunShare will keep its six-person office in the Springs, where he's based.
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