Colorado was first with community solar but has since lagged behind other states. Why? – The Denver Post

Count Eric Arnoldy among those who want to see more community solar gardens in the Denver area. He drives an electric car and has bought renewable energy credits through his electric cooperative to do his bit to help reduce carbon emissions.

But he can’t put solar panels on his house in the Ken Caryl neighborhood in Jefferson County.

“I’ve got one of those houses that does not have a big enough roof to get solar on my house,” Arnoldy said.

That places him among the majority of Coloradans who don’t have the option of installing solar where they live because the roof isn’t big enough or it’s in the wrong spot. Other people live in apartments or condominiums.

Community solar gardens are an option for people like Arnoldy who want to go green and take advantage of the declining solar costs. Community solar gardens are centralized arrays of solar panels that users subscribe to and then get credits for on their monthly bills.

But for a while the demand for community solar in Colorado has outstripped the capacity available because of limits on the size and location of  arrays. Arnoldy is watching as the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approves rules to carry out a 2019 law aimed at opening up more opportunities.

“I’ll be the first one there. I’ll be the first one to sign up,” said Arnoldy, who testified before the PUC in favor of solar gardens.

New Energy Structures Company crews install ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

New Energy Structures Company crews install solar panels at Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont on Friday, July 17, 2020.

However, community solar supporters say the implications of a recent decision by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on new rules are unclear. The CEO of SunShare Community Solar and the industry group Colorado Solar and Storage Association will ask the PUC to reconsider portions of the decision they believe will hold up, rather than help, the expansion of the projects.

“There were some good structural wins for community solar for sure,” said David Amster-Olszewski, founder and CEO of Denver-based SunShare.

But the outcome on provisions important to increasing community solar in Colorado is “muddled” and seems to run counter to the intent of House Bill 1003, Amster-Olszewski said.

“It’s really clear that the administration and the legislature want more community solar gardens,” he added.

Colorado pioneered the concept of community solar gardens and in 2010 adopted the first statewide program. Colorado has since lagged behind other states because of size limits and other restrictions, Amster-Olszewski said.

Minnesota, home to Colorado’s largest electric utility, Xcel Energy, has the most installed solar-garden capacity at 785.1 megawatts. That’s about double the total in second-ranked New York, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Colorado comes in fifth with 103.2 megawatts.

Community solar provides an important avenue for shifting to renewable energy, said state Sen. Chris Hansen, a prime sponsor of HB 1003.

“About 75% of the households cannot put solar panels on their roof, including apartments and high-rise buildings,” the Denver Democrat said.

The 2019 legislation increased to 5 megawatts from 2 megawatts the maximum size of a community array. The cap will increase to 10 megawatts after July 1, 2023.

One megawatt of solar energy can supply electricity to 200 to 250 homes.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Jack’s Solar Garden founder, Byron Kominek poses for a portrait at the garden in Longmont on Friday, July 17, 2020.

Another change is the elimination of a requirement that subscribers had to live in or next to the county where the project is located. The requirement limited the number of solar gardens because many of the potential customers are in the Denver area where land is less available, Hansen said.

“That was a restriction that Xcel Energy lobbied for and got into the original community solar act. That doesn’t make any sense because we want to provide low-cost options for customers,” he said.

The law applies to investor-owned utilities Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy. Xcel Energy is the company that most solar developers work with. Its resource plan, approved by the PUC, sets the total amount of capacity on the grid it will make available to solar developers.

This year, developers could bid on a total 40 of megawatts, said Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association. The demand from customers was for roughly 200 megawatts of community solar.

“Xcel does not want a big expansion of community solar,” Hansen said. “They will work at the PUC to not have anything that impinges on their market share.”

While Hansen doesn’t blame Xcel, a for-profit company, for trying to maximize its value for shareholders, he said the legislature wants to give Coloradans more choices. “My hope is the PUC will be able to work through these issues and get clarity for the market participants. If we can’t get there, certainly legislation is an option.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

New Energy Structures Company crews install solar panels at Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont on Friday, July 17, 2020.

Xcel Energy is working to increase renewable energy on its system and reduce carbon emissions, Brooke Trammell, regional vice president of rates and regulatory affairs for Xcel Energy-Colorado said in an email. As part of the long-term plan to do that, more than half of a $2.5 billion investment will be made by independent power producers who will sell electricity to Xcel Energy, Trammell  said.

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