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Colorado’s community solar gardens law allows distant communities to be tied at the electrical hip

Breckenridge expected to have its municipal operations 100% powered by solar energy on a net-metered basis by 2025, the result of the town’s subscription to capacity in community solar gardens.

But the solar gardens won’t be local, at least in the way we usually think of local. Four of the solar gardens will be in Logan County, in the state’s northeastern corner, near Sterling and Peetz, and another will be along Interstate 70 near the town of New Castle.

A law, HB 19-1003, adopted last year by Colorado expanded the concept of community solar gardens. It also expands the concept of “community.” That makes it easier for places like Breckenridge to claim 100% renewable generation.

“They’ve been trying to do it as local as possible, but it just didn’t work,” says Jon Sullivan, vice president of project development for Pivot Energy, the solar developer working with Breckenridge.

Land costs matter entirely for solar development. Federal lands comprise more than 80% of Summit County, and the remaining private lands have challenges.

Some parcels Sullivan examined were forested and steep. “I can’t develop that,” he said. Flattish open lands had residential or commercial potential.

Previous law required that community solar gardens had to be within the same county or an adjacent county to be a subscriber. This effectively precluded subscriptions for community solar from residents, businesses, and organizations in Denver. To develop a 2-megawatt community solar garden requires at least 10 acres.

The limit also posed challenges for some, but not all, other mountain resort areas and Boulder County, with its high-priced real estate.

The Community Solar Gardens Modernization Act removed the requirement that subscribers to community solar gardens be within the same county or an adjacent county to the physical location of the installation. Now, the solar garden must only be within the service territory of the utility serving the subscriber. In the case of Breckenridge and Summit County altogether, that is Xcel Energy.

This gives companies like Pivot Energy, the largest community solar developer in Colorado, greater flexibility.

Transmission constraints

The law also allows solar gardens to be up to 5 megawatts in size, compared to the previous maximum of 2 megawatts. Solar developers felt handcuffed when trying to create contracts for larger subscribers, such as school districts in populated counties.

Sullivan cites the case of Jefferson County, which wanted to subscribe to enough solar electricity for its courthouse in Golden, a facility nicknamed the Taj Mahal. It had to subscribe in 11 different gardens. The law limits any one subscriber to no more than 40% of a solar garden’s production, in order to keep the concept of a community garden alive.

Breckenridge will need five gardens to satisfy its demand for 3.6 megawatts, because Xcel Energy will still allow only 2-megawatt community gardens for the time being. One location is two counties and more than 100 miles away. The other solar gardens will be five counties and 200-plus miles away.

Colorado electrical providers

Colorado by electrical service provider. The dark-blue areas are those served by Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest.

Cheaper land matters, but the locations must also be near distribution lines and substations.

Even so, Pivot Energy is finding it more difficult to build new community solar gardens in rural areas to meet urban demands because of transmission constraints. It has completed or is finalizing development of 35 megawatts of community solar gardens in 10 counties in Colorado.

“I think we’re maxing it out,” says Sullivan of locations near Sterling. Locations closer to the Front Range in Adams and Arapahoe counties, on the east side of Denver, are already maxed out because of transmission and grid connections.

“It’s not sustainable,” says Sullivan of Pivot Energy’s business of developing community solar gardens.

The electrical grid needs to be modernized at a faster rate, which is partly the intent of at least one bill introduced into the Colorado Legislature.

Colorado pioneered the concept of community solar with a law adopted in 2010. It became a model for laws adopted by Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and Minnesota. Several then bypassed Colorado in their policies for the same reasons Colorado last year recast its limits.

Breckenridge has 2035 goal

Pivot Energy expects to begin production from the solar gardens by the end of 2020, allowing Breckenridge to hit its target for 100% energy for municipal operations five years ahead of its 2025 goal.

The town expects to save more than $700,000 in energy costs over the duration of the 20-year agreement without incurring upfront capital costs.

Eric Mamula, the mayor, said the town is “thrilled to be ahead of schedule for our 100% renewable energy municipal goal. Three years ago, we weren’t sure how we would get there or if we could even do it. Now, we’re showing other communities the way forward.”

State Sen. Chris Hansen, sponsor of the bill adopted into law last year, said it was rewarding to “see such an immediate impact of the work we do at the Capitol.”

While Breckenridge decarbonizes the electrical supplies for municipal buildings, it hopes for 100% renewable electricity by 2035 for its community.

Xcel Energy has said it can see how to get to 80% emissions-free electricity by 2030, although not to 100%, given current technology.

Although without formal goals, Breckenridge has also started defining pathways for fewer community wide carbon emissions. Among the efforts to decarbonize the built environment is Alta Verde, an 80-unit affordable housing project that will have a 500-kW on-site solar array, and will be all electric.

“It’s the town’s first attempt at a demonstration project to show decarbonization is possible in our climate zone,” said Jessie Burley, the sustainability coordinator for the municipality.

“We hope to be a leader in this space as we continue to reduce our energy needs across the community, such as moving towards all new construction being net zero,” said Mamula.

See also: How can these ski communities achieve 1005 renewables?

Allen Best
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