A New Garden for a New Age

Solar panels in a field

Copyright © 2005 David Monniaux

I’ve heard of a vegetable garden, a kindergarten, and even the Boston Garden, but I never heard of a community solar garden.

Until today, when I learned about this nifty innovation from someone who is trying to get them instituted in Longmont, where we live.

Put simply, a community solar garden is like a community vegetable garden but with solar panels rather than plants. By placing the panels in a central, sunny location, people don’t have to place the panels on their house or maintain them. As I mentioned in my previous post, my house isn’t a good candidate for panels due to the two giant maple trees shading the southern roof.

And then Dave, representing the Community for Sustainable Energy, came to our door on this chilly, Sunday evening. He told me other communities in Boulder County and Colorado have community solar gardens, but Longmont does not. So he is going door-to-door to drum up grassroots support for the idea. People can help the effort by donating and sending a note to the city council advocating for the solar gardens.

Colorado was the first state to legislate solar gardens when it passed the Community Solar Gardens Act in 2010.  The act permits gardens to generate anywhere from 2 kilowatts to 10 megawatts (2-5 kilowatts typically provides 100% of the electricity for a single-family home).

The way it works is the solar garden is installed by a company, such as Clean Energy Collective, in coordination with the city. Individuals buy the actual panels, however many they want up to a number that provides 120% of their annual usage. Clean Energy Collective even lets you sign your panels to show that you own them. The company also maintains the panels. After you purchase them, your work is done, so you can just enjoy the savings and take pride in using renewable energy.

Yes we all like feeling warm and fuzzy inside, but money also matters. So lets look at an example. The utility company Xcel requires a minimum initial purchase of 1 kilowatt. That involves a one-time cost of approximately $2,000-$2,500. For comparison, installing 1 KW of solar on your house costs $3,740 (see Figure 2.6 for installation cost per watt). The customer’s electricity bill then gets credited for the amount of energy their panel generates. One kilowatt of panels would result in an annual credit of $150-180. The subscription pays for itself in 11-17 years, possibly less if rates go up. Longmont has a public utility, so the numbers may be slightly different.

Customers can “take” their solar with them if they move within the area of their utility company or they can sell their panels. Can’t do that with rooftop solar!

The Community for Sustainable Energy is a charitable organization based in Fort Collins, CO. They are focused on improving energy efficiency and transportation systems, speeding adoption of renewable energy, and pushing utilities to explore sustainable energy technologies. In addition to community solar gardens, their past campaigns include moratoriums on oil and gas drilling and increasing local and regional bus service.

As nice as Dave was, and as pretty as the organization’s website is, I still was hesitant about sending them a donation. I checked the CO Secretary of State website to confirm it is a legal charity. They have been registered with CO since 2009. They have a tax exempt status for their educational purpose. So they are legit.

I am still debating the donation. However, I definitely will notify my city council that they too should learn about community solar gardens and authorize our public utility to buy power from one. Let’s get one for Longmont!

UPDATE (11/17/14): Changes made for clarity and flow, added cost of rooftop solar, and corrected who my utility company is (duh, Xcel provides my gas, but Longmont Power & Communications provides my electricity).

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