Solar power spreads in valley

Solar energy installation since 2006 has grown into a $15 million industry in Mesa County that supports about 80 jobs, according to the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association. Above, Paul Shelton works at Simplicity Solar in Grand Junction.

Paul Shelton of Simplicity Solar carries a panel in the company’s shop. A representative of another Grand Junction solar company says a leasing program for customers has helped spur demand for installation.

Solar power installation is accelerating in Mesa County, according to an upcoming report from industry groups.

Residential and commercial systems are being installed at a rate of 10 to 15 each week, they said, more than double the weekly rate last year. The pace means installations in 2012 are expected to roughly double the total from last year.

That has brought the cumulative total of residential and commercial solar systems installed in Mesa County since 2006 to more than 1,200 and given rise to a local solar industry that supports around 80 jobs and does around $15 million in annual sales.

Those installations are now also offsetting eight to 10 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, according to Lou Villaire of Grand Valley Solar Center and Atlasta Solar.

Villaire spoke to the annual Western Slope stakeholders meeting of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association Wednesday afternoon at Colorado Mesa University.

The report on the growth of solar in Mesa County is being produced by Grand Valley Solar Center, COSEIA and CMU’s Natural Resource Center and is expected to be released this fall.

The report is an update of one released several years ago, Villaire said, and shows that since then growth of the solar industry on the Western Slope and Mesa County in particular has accelerated.

One big driver of that trend is a leasing program through which residential customers can pay a monthly rate to lease the solar equipment rather than buy the expensive equipment all at once at the start, Villaire said. He called the program a game-changer, comparing it to the way in which cellphones were able to replace many landline phones.

“You can now get the same amount of electricity (from solar) and pay less for it,” he said, noting that a lease agreement can typically involve paying nothing down and $60 to $75 a month to a third-party solar leasing company over a 20-year contract.

Neil Lurie, executive director of COSEIA, said installing solar is already cost-effective and will only become more so if those costs go down a little bit more.

“Today, it’s economically attractive. Tomorrow, it could be a no-brainer,” he said Wednesday.

Speaking of the state as a whole, Lurie said Colorado is now the top state in the country in solar jobs per capita and that over the past four years the number of solar businesses in Colorado has jumped from 40 to 400.

Solar in Colorado may get another boost in the coming years after the U.S. Department of the Interior announced Tuesday it had identified 17 tracts of public land across the southwestern U.S. on which utility-scale solar projects could be feasible.

Four of those sites are in Colorado, all around the San Luis Valley area. The sites were chosen because solar development there would have fewer impacts on wildlife or other resources than elsewhere and the identification of these sites allows development of large solar projects there to be streamlined, the agency said.


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