Think Outside the Roof: Solar Gardens

Community gardens? Important, yes, by that’s so2011. Add solar gardens to your vocab because they’re about to rock

From gigaom.com/cleantech/community-solar-gardens-making-solar-accessible/

your world.

A solar garden adapts the community garden concept but replaces tomato plants with solar panels. This sun-harvesting idea takes the power of many to lower utility bills, lessens our need for dirty forms of energy, and creates a community connection. The garden group is made up of at least 10 “subscribers” – such as residents or businesses – who buy shares of the solar power created by a centralized photovoltaic array. Subscribers receive credit from their utility company, thus reducing their energy bills. The solar array is built and maintained by the host company on a large roof or plot of land. The subscribers own the panels and have a say in major decisions.

Colorado is one of six – soon to be more – states that have policies to support community solar gardens. The Community Solar Gardens Act, signed in 2010, requires investor-owned utilities like Black Hills Energy or Xcel Energy to offer rebates to community solar gardens.  In Colorado, these energy cooperatives can be as large as 2 megawatts, requiring up to 16 acres, which could offset the energy requirements of 400 to 1,000 average single-family homes.

Solar gardens are beneficial for everyone involved: subscribers, hosts, utilities, and local workers. Currently, the main methods of solar power production are distributed and concentrated projects. Distributed power generates energy from many small sources like solar panels on houses. Concentrated power produces energy from one big set-up like a huge solar panel field.

Solar gardens meet these two options in the middle. It relieves the costs that might occur for individuals and businesses with solar panels on their roofs while also making a large quantity of electricity to put into the grid system. Utilities also benefit by not having to invest in a large solar array yet are still able to meet state renewable energy production standards. Although many solar panels are still made overseas – mostly in Asia – the installation of the light-catching devices relies on local workers, as does maintenance.

The contract between the subscriber and host acts as a lease program. The resident or business pays a monthly fee for general maintenance and in return receives a monthly credit from electricity production. The lease lasts for 20 years but is completely transferrable and sellable. In fact, if you sell your home, you can sell your lease with the house or sell them separately.

You may have also noticed your energy bills aren’t getting any lower. Coal and natural gas will continue to increase in cost while renewable energy sources like wind and solar are continuing to decrease in production cost. Even with many local, state, and federal rebates for solar, the initial cost for photovoltaic panels can be too much for an average income and especially out of reach for low-income families. Solar gardens create opportunities for renters, shaded homes, and low-income residents to free themselves from high-energy bills each month.

The incentives for solar programs vary from area to area, as does the amount of sunshine available. Pueblo, luckily, has two things going for it: 267 days of sunshine according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration and substantial solar rebates for Black Hills Energy customers.

The Sierra Club will host a presentation on solar garden opportunities in Pueblo on Wednesday, June 27 from 6:30-8:00pm at Beta Desk Center, 113 Broadway.

By Jenny Kedward

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