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 canâ€™t put solar panels on his house in the Ken Caryl neighborhood in Jefferson County.
â€śIâ€™ve got one of those houses that does not have a big enough roof to get solar on my house,â€ť Arnoldy said.
That places him among the majority of Coloradans who donâ€™t have the option of installing solar where they live because the roof isnâ€™t big enough or itâ€™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 ofÂ arrays. Arnoldy is watching as the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approves rules to carry out a 2019 law aimed at opening up more opportunities.
â€śIâ€™ll be the first one there. Iâ€™ll be the first one to sign up,â€ť said Arnoldy, who testified before the PUC in favor of solar gardens.
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.
â€śThere were some good structural wins for community solar for sure,â€ť saidÂ David Amster-Olszewski, founder and CEO of Denver-based SunShare.
But the outcome on provisions important to increasing community solar in Colorado is â€śmuddledâ€ť and seems to run counter to the intent of House Bill 1003, Amster-Olszewski said.
â€śItâ€™s really clear that the administration and the legislature want more community solar gardens,â€ť 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 Coloradoâ€™s largest electric utility, Xcel Energy, has the most installed solar-garden capacity at 785.1 megawatts. Thatâ€™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.
â€śAbout 75% of the households cannot put solar panels on their roof, including apartments and high-rise buildings,â€ť 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.
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.
â€śThat was a restriction that Xcel Energy lobbied for and got into the original community solar act. That doesnâ€™t make any sense because we want to provide low-cost options for customers,â€ť 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.
â€śXcel does not want a big expansion of community solar,â€ť Hansen said. â€śThey will work at the PUC to not have anything that impinges on their market share.â€ť
While Hansen doesnâ€™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. â€śMy hope is the PUC will be able to work through these issues and get clarity for the market participants. If we canâ€™t get there, certainly legislation is an option.â€ť
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,Â more than half of a $2.5 billion investment will be made by independent power producers who will sell electricity to Xcel Energy, TrammellÂ said.
â€śWeâ€™ve enabled extensive growth in community solar gardens and will continue to help this program grow in the coming years. Today, nearly 100 megawatts are online. Nearly 90 (megawatts) more are in various stages of development,â€ť Trammell said.
Under its renewable Energy Plan, Trammell said Xcel will increase community solar garden offerings with 170 megawatts of capacity available by the end of 2021.
Advocates say changes are needed to meet the demand in a timely manner. They want to standardize the way companies propose solar gardens to Xcel Energy. Draft rules proposed making up to 3% of the regulated utilitiesâ€™ retail sales available for community solar. That would have amounted to about 500 megawatts, or enough power for 100,000 homes.
But Kruger said the 3% figure was dropped from the final rules. Itâ€™s not clear how much capacity would be available to developers under a so-called â€śstandard offerâ€ť by which companies build a project for a set price rather than bid for it.
Also unclear is how solar garden subscribers will claim renewable energy credits, which currently go to Xcel Energy. The new rules will allow subscribers, including cities, companies and homeowners, to keep the credits. The credits can be sold, but the price is low. Their main value for those with a small amount is as proof that owners are paying for renewable energy and working toward clean-energy goa