The popularity of solar panels continues to surge — with economics, energy independence and the protection of the environment all offering reasons to go green. Ken Houle cites all of those factors in his transition to solar.
“If you look at the overall picture, solar is better,” explained Houle, who investigated the energy alternative after seeing several of his neighbors make the move.
Houle resides west of Gunnison in Tomichi Heights — his energy usage, like many in the valley, is a mix of electric and a wood stove to aid through the winter months.
“It’s much cheaper, and saving a buck or two has always intrigued me,” Houle explained of the current state of solar electricity.
The switch to alternative energy isn't simply a national trend, but one that can be seen in the Gunnison Valley. Since April 1, a total of 25 new residential solar projects totaling 136 kilowatts (KW) of generation have either been installed or are in the works.
By way of comparison, those projects are in addition to 105 customers within Gunnison County Electric Association’s (GCEA) service area and another 12 customers in the City of Gunnison that already harness energy from the sun through photovoltaic (PV) — or electricity-generating — systems.
Solar push led by students
Part of the uptick can be credited to graduate students at Western Colorado University. In an effort to gain ground with renewables, Western students Hunter Edberg and Ellen Ross teamed up to tackle alternative energy needs in the Gunnison Valley for their capstone project this year.
This February marked the start of a 12-week marketing campaign to incentivize installation of PV panels. The concept was inspired and supported by nonprofit Solar Energy International, which aims to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower people, communities and businesses.
The Solarize Gunnison County program includes a partnership with a solar installer and a tiered rebate system. Ross and Edberg worked with local solar provider Nunatak to promote a “group buy-in” period from February through April to help reduce costs of installation.
The idea is this: Rebates are offered for those who install solar through the Solarize program, and the more people who signed up, the cheaper it becomes for each participant.
Within the Solarize program, of the 54 participants that received a remote site assessment, 70-80 percent of homes analyzed were determined to be ideal for solar installations — a figure Edberg found promising. From those assessments, a total of 15 contracts were signed, comprising 95 KW of solar generation.
Yet, Solarize participants aren’t the only local residents to move toward solar in recent months.
It’s a pattern that Teddy Aegerter of Atlasta Solar Center also has observed through an increase in business in the valley. Atlasta, a Grand Junctionbased solar installation company, has completed or is in the process of installing a total of 10 projects in the Gunnison Valley since the beginning of last month, accounting for a total of 41 KW.
According to Aegerter, solar is the perfect solution to meet energy needs in a community where the winters are harsh and electric bills are high.
Where’s the incentive?
The rates within GCEAs boundary are higher than rates in the City of Gunnison as well as the national average — providing yet another reason to go solar, he said. GCEA currently charges 15 cents per kilowatthour, while the national average is 13 cents.
“The cost of solar has gone down 70 percent within the last 10 years,” said Aegerter.
He also pointed to incentives in the form of federal tax breaks as another reason to go green. One such incentive comes in the form of the Investment Tax Credit — a 30 percent federal tax credit for residential and commercial solar installations. However, the credit starts to diminish after 2019, dropping to 26 percent in 2020 and 22 percent in 2021.
Yet, one of the biggest takeaways from the Solarize program was the importance of policy, said Edberg.
“It’s somewhat obvious that policy drives action, but so much of what happens with renewables is directly related to policy,” he said.
For instance, the city’s “netmetering” policy — or compensation for a residence or business producing power — differs from that of GCEA, which provides power outside city limits. GCEA compensates customers at its retail rate for excess power, while the city pays the wholesale rate.
“The downside to the city is that they don’t have your standard net metering,” Atlasta’s Aegerter agreed.
That combined with lower rates for electricity used in the city results in much greater incentive for customers in the unincorporated county and other municipalities to pursue solar. Edberg noted through the buy-in program there was less interest within city limits, and a handful of potential customers opted out because of city policy related to solar.
Likewise, none of Atlasta’s recent projects are within city limits.
“I think if Colorado is realistically going to make it to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, a lot of these policies are going to have to be evaluated, analyzed and probably changed,” added Edberg.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
SOLARIZE BY THE NUMBERS
> 15 residential solar projects installed
> 96 KW total in combined installations
> $75,000 reinvested into the local economy
> 110,609 kilograms of carbon emissions offset
> Four local jobs created