Routt County to join Steamboat in providing financial support for regional solar co-op

Patrick Walko installs solar panels at the Steamboat Springs wastewater treatment plant grounds last November. The 413 KW solar array on 1.2 acres will cover approximately 25% of the plant’s electrical needs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

On Monday, April 11, Routt County Commissioners expressed support for providing some funding to help set up a solar co-op in Northwest Colorado, an effort the city of Steamboat Springs has already committed $10,000 toward.

The county funding — likely between $5,000 and $10,000 depending on what commissioners decide — would go to the Colorado arm of Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit that works to bring interested homeowners together to increase bargaining power and lower the cost of solar energy.

This isn’t the first local solar co-op, as about 14 homes installed solar through a similar effort in 2019. However, because Yampa Valley Electric Association is limited to how much of its power can come from large solar gardens in its contract with Xcel Energy, the solar co-op hopes to help the Yampa Valley meet renewable energy goals by installing solar “behind the meter.”

“The Climate Action Plan really calls for additional renewable energy,” said Winnie DelliQuadri, intergovernmental services manager for Steamboat Springs. “YVEA has a carve out that only allows them to do so many solar gardens.”

Megan Moore-Kemp, energy solutions manager with YVEA, said a planned solar garden project in Craig would bring them to that carve out, as the company is limited in how much power it can produce itself. She said while YVEA could still facilitate a solar garden project and it doesn’t have to be behind the meter, it would need to have the purpose of offsetting current power usage.

“It doesn’t mean that we can’t do more community solar gardens, it just has to be structured in the right way,” Moore-Kemp said.

Currently, about 40% of YVEA’s power mix comes from renewable sources, but YVEA is on track to be 100% carbon neutral by 2050 at the direction of YVEA’s power supplier, Xcel Energy.

Because of these limitations, DelliQuadri said the best way to increase the amount of renewable energy faster and meet goals in the Climate Action Plan is by helping homeowners do it themselves.

Both the city and county have tried to streamline the process to get permits to add solar panels. DelliQuadri said the next step is seeing what other barriers there are for people when it comes to adding solar. One is cost, which the co-op is designed to address.

“It aggregates the purchase, gives you economies of scale, and has someone that’s knowledgeable walking you through (the process),” Delliqudri said of the co-op’s benefits. “Facilitating that process seemed to be that next thing that we could to do to try to eliminate barriers.”

Bryce Carter, Solar United Neighbor’s Colorado program director, said the effort in 2019 got 122 people to sign up as members with 14 of them eventually purchasing solar power equipment for their homes. This time the goal is to get at least 100 members and have 30 of them sign up for solar.

When membership is strong enough, Carter said, the co-op will issue a request for proposals allowing various solar companies to bid what they would charge for installation as one large project, rather than multiple smaller projects. The co-op is a one-time thing — essentially ending once its members have installed solar — but DelliQuadri said the goal would be to do a co-op each year.

The city has committed $10,000 to the co-op with $5,000 included in each of the last two budget years. Carter said they have partnerships with other regional entities such as the Meeker and Craig chambers of commerce and the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. So far, other municipalities have not joined the effort.

Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said he not only supports the idea, but he is also interested in adding solar panels at his home near Yampa, a position that had him questioning whether he should recuse himself from a final decision.

“We can leave that dollar number open for now,” Corrigan said. “In that public setting we can debate among ourselves what the appropriate amount would be.”

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