Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summit County Solar Options Stay Steady, New Ones on the Way

Though the initial $1 per installed kilowatt of installed residential solar was eliminated a week-and-a-half ago by Xcel Energy in Colorado, the company adjusted its production credits to maintain a mostly even payback.
Innovative Energy installed 18 195-watt solar panels at a
home in Blue River in September 2010. The Summit County
solar garden project is currently on hold until Xcel Energy
opens the program, which onlookers expect to happen by
the end of July.

Currently, residents wanting to install solar arrays can benefit from a credit of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour of energy produced for 20 years. That payback will diminish eventually, but not until the utility reaches 4.8 megawatts of power produced from customer-owned arrays. According to Xcel's Solar Rewards website, 4.794 megawatts remains in the tier. The next 4.8 megawatts of solar power installed and placed on the grid will be rewarded at 14 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“If you don't use much energy, (the production credit) might offset (the entire bill),” said Michelle Zimmerman of Innovative Energy.

The idea behind Xcel Energy's tiered system is to encourage customers to build out the company's solar structure as quickly as possible. Those who buy in first get the best incentives, and so on down the line until the mandated capacity is reached.

For customers who don't want to pay $20,000 up front for a solar array, a lease option allows an investor to construct the system, with the customer paying back the loan. Xcel aims to create an energy bill that is less than the non-solar energy bill after combining the rebated energy bill with the loan payments. Customers can put zero down and save money — creating more of an incentive to install the arrays.

Banks provide loans for such projects as well, so customers can treat it as a home-improvement project, which would eventually realize the energy rebate savings once the loan is repaid.

Solar gardens are another option for residents wanting to buy into the solar movement.

The Summit County project is currently on hold until Xcel Energy opens the program, which onlookers expect to happen by the end of July. Previously, would-be applicants waited for the Public Utilities Commission to decide on its rules, and now, roughly two years ago legislation passed incentivizing solar gardens, it appears the program is ready to go.

When Xcel opens the program, applicants will be in a frenzy, uploading applications and application deposits that will be kept in escrow until the applications are reviewed and approved. The money gets the time stamp, so whoever wires the money fastest will be first in line with their application.

It's like sitting on the Web, waiting for a sell-out band to open tickets to a popular concert. It'll be over in minutes.

Zimmerman said nine megawatts are available for solar gardens throughout the state.

As for Summit County's competition, High Country Conservation Center's Lynne Greene said it's like 24 applicants are vying for 4.5 seats.

Together with Zimmerman, Greene is heading up the county's solar garden effort, and also has a Lake County application to submit.

The women said that, ideally, the nine megawatts would be spread among projects throughout the state, even though Xcel advertises a first-come, first-served approach.

Greene has many people tentatively signed on to the solar garden in a non-binding agreement, but she's seeking more.

Now that a financing program that can be as low as $1 per day has been developed by the project's potential developer, Clean Energy Collective, she hopes more people will sign on. A credit union loan provides interest rates as low as 2.5 percent and can be purchased in 3-, 5-, 7- and 10-year terms.

It buys a solar garden subscription, eliminating the need to build an array on a home, allowing renters and homeowners in multi-family units as well as those with lower incomes or less immediately disposable income to buy into solar. A solar garden also allows subscribers to separate a solar investment from their house, making it possible to sell a house separate from the solar subscription — also meaning the subscription is transferable.

“Not everyone has $3,000 to drop on solar,” Greene said. Financing is an option that sees immediate payback without immediate savings (because of interest), but once it's paid off, subscribers will feel the impact.

If everything goes according to plan, the Summit County solar garden could break ground in the fall and be running by next spring or summer.


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