Solar farm reduces utility expenses for low-income Grand Valley users
What started as a simple solar farm turned into a first-of-its-kind community solar program for low-income members of Grand Valley Power and a model for similar projects around the state and nation.
After partnering with Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit group that develops photovoltaic systems for low-income households in numerous states, the Colorado Energy Office has completed a two-year partnership designed to show the benefits of community solar gardens for low-income families.
The first of those demonstration solar projects, which is located off 29 Road near Interstate 70, has helped low-income people participate in similar solar projects without having to come up with the expensive upfront costs of installing their own panels.
At a dedication ceremony celebrating the successful completion of the demonstration project, Grand Valley’s chief executive officer, Tom Walch, said it took a community to make it happen.
“On one side you had a bunch of starry-eyed environmentalists who want to save the world, and then on the other hand, you had a bunch of Grand Junction farmers and co-op people who just want to save money,” Walch said. “We were able to work together. We planned this, we came up with the idea, we put the plan together. We worked together side by side.”
Each family involved in the project — several rotate through the program in four-year intervals — save about $600 in electricity costs during that time.
Originally, the rural cooperative just wanted to create a community solar program to help it meet its renewable energy requirement, which it did back in 2011. At a cost of about $77,500, the cooperative installed 88 panels, and leased them out to cooperative members, allowing them to have solar without having to pay their own installation costs.
In 2015, the energy office awarded Grid a $1.2 million grant to partner with rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities statewide to develop solar programs aimed at helping low-income users. Grid then worked with Grand Valley and geared its solar farm to serve those cooperative members who earn 80 percent or less of the median income of the Grand Valley.
Since then, Grid has worked with several other utilities, including Delta-Montrose Electric Association, San Miguel Electric Association and Holy Cross Energy, which serves power users in Garfield County. Eventually, the partnership now serves more than 300 households in the state, supplying about 1.4 megawatts of electricity.
As a result, the project earned national attention, said Kathleen Staks, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, who attended Thursday’s event.
“The two primary goals of this demonstration were to reduce electric costs for energy-burdened utility customers, and to demonstrate the scalability and viability of the low-income community solar model,” Staks said.
“In collaboration with our utility partners, we have tested new approaches and created best practices that will guide future state and national expansion. We even have some international interest in this.”