Solar garden to power Colorado town’s municipal buildings

The city of Manitou Springs, ColoradoRedirecting to a non-government site recently took the historic step of signing a contract to receive up to 100 percent of city facilities’ energy needs from community solar.

The fully subscribed Venetucci Solar Garden is one of two pilot projects SunShare built and operates for Colorado Springs Utilities. (Photo by SunShare)
The fully subscribed Venetucci Solar Garden is one of two pilot projects SunShare built and operates for Colorado Springs Utilities. (Photo by SunShare)

A 3,000-panel array, being built by locally based SunShare Redirecting to a non-government site community solar company, will provide Manitou with 0.5 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy. The city will pay 5.6 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to its power provider Colorado Springs UtilitiesRedirecting to a non-government site which will distribute the power. Springs Utilities agreed last fall to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) amounting to 4 cents per kWh from SunShare, allowing the project to move forward.

Construction on the 2-MW solar garden will occur over the summer, and the facility is expected to begin generating in October.

Groundbreaking decision
The Manitou Springs City Council unanimously approved the agreement with SunShare on April 15. According to SunShare, Manitou Springs may be the first city in the U.S. to choose to source 100 percent its energy needs from community solar.

The decision marked the culmination of a public process lasting several months including presentations to Manitou Springs City Council, public comments and a work session. However, it was a comment by a city official three years earlier that set the deal into motion. Manitou Mayor Pro-Tem Coreen Toll said that she wanted governments and businesses to be able to buy power from solar gardens just as homeowners and school districts were allowed to do.

In a news release announcing the decision, Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder observed that the program could serve as an example to the community and other cities. “Not only will our city facilities be powered by solar, but thanks to Colorado Springs Utilities, every resident and business in Manitou Springs now has the ability to join us in this community solar program,” said the mayor.

Laying groundwork
The framework for Manitou’s solar purchase began with a pilot project in 2011. Springs Utilities partnered with SunShare to build and operate two community solar gardens totaling 1 MW.  SunShare sold individual Springs customers 0.4-kW shares up to 120 percent of their average annual energy use. Customers receive a credit on their monthly bills for their shares’ generation, and may transfer their shares to another address or another Utilities customer if they move.

The two pilot gardens are fully subscribed, and government agencies like the city of Manitou Springs and businesses will be able to buy shares in the new 2-MW facility. “Community solar has been extremely popular in Colorado Springs,” acknowledged Jerry Forte, CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities. “We’re proud that we were one of the first communities to create this option for our customers with SunShare.”

To make the solar garden program more accessible to more customers, Springs Utilities added the option of a performance-based incentive this year. “That change helps to mitigate some of the upfront costs of buying into the solar garden,” explained David Grossman, a spokesman for Springs Utilities.

Statewide support
Manitou’s decision to go solar in its municipal facilities, and the support the city received from Springs Utilities, is part of the larger success story of community solar in Colorado. The state legislature passed the country’s first Community Solar Gardens Act in 2010, an act that inspired 16 states from Minnesota to California to create similar programs.

The pilot program Springs Utilities launched in 2011 was the first of its kind for a municipal utility, but more utilities—both public and investor owned—are following suit. SunShare has additional projects underway with Xcel Energy and Fort Collins Utilities totaling more than 13 MW, enough capacity to serve more than 3,000 homes.

Going solar will help Manitou meet its goal of reducing its carbon emissions 30 percent by 2020 six years ahead of schedule, based on a 2008 carbon inventory. The city is currently discussing an arrangement with SunShare to use the array to power its streetlights, as well. “That would be a great opportunity because it would reduce our carbon footprint by more than 60 percent,” said Mayor Snyder. “Streetlights are handled under a different agreement than other municipal facilities, however, so it will take some negotiations to work that out.”

As good as these decisions are for the environment, they make economic sense, too. Although the city still pays Springs Utilities for distribution, its energy costs will be fixed. “I am pretty confident this will help us not only meet our carbon reduction goals, but also save us money,” Mayor Snyder said.

The growth of solar farms in its territory is good for Spring Utilities, too. Because the municipal utility serves more than 100,000 meters (214,600, to be precise), the state’s renewable portfolio standard applies to it. The RECs purchased from SunShare are helping Springs Utilities meet the goal of 20 percent of its retail electricity sales from renewable sources by 2020. “We are about at 10 percent renewables, now, counting our hydroelectric power from Western,” said Grossman.

He added that solar power has some coincident peak generation with the utility’s load so it helps meet demand in the growing city.

David Amster-Olszewski, President and CEO of SunShare, praised Colorado Springs Utilities, Manitou Springs and its citizens for their leadership in recognizing the benefits of community solar. “Working with the city of Manitou Springs has been an absolute pleasure and I can’t wait to help them achieve their goals,” he said.