Local ‘Solarize’ campaign boosts Garfield County solar energy investment
$2.8 million in installations attributed to Solarize Garfield County
Special to the Post Independent
The recent Solarize Garfield County campaign generated $2.8 million in rooftop solar and battery investment, added nearly a megawatt of renewable energy to the grid and helped county residents bank $270,000 in rebates, according to recent figures released by Carbondale-based Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER).
The program, which the intergovernmental organization Garfield Clean Energy (GCE) spearheaded from March to June, exceeded all expectations, Carbondale Trustee Ben Bohmfalk said. Bohmfalk represents the town on the GCE board.
“We thought the Solarize strategy could help boost solar energy development in the county, and as it turned out it tapped into even more demand than we imagined,” Bohmfalk said. “We’re really pleased with the results.”
A total of 110 households and businesses purchased solar systems through the program, adding 855 kW (kilowatts) of solar capacity, according to Maisa Metcalf, buildings program director at CLEER.
CLEER organized and ran the Solarize program and manages the programs of GCE, which is a collaborative of six municipalities, the county, Colorado Mountain College and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
In a sign of the changes that are rapidly sweeping the clean energy sector, Metcalf noted that program participants also purchased 372 kW of backup battery storage, accounting for $310,000 of the total amount invested.
“Based on the successful results of the program, we would love to do it again next year with a special focus on battery storage and additional incentives for low- to medium-income households,” Metcalf said.
She added that CLEER and GCE are already discussing ways to improve the program based on the first year’s experience and feedback from participants.
“We are thrilled that Solarize Garfield County has been so successful in encouraging our members to install solar panels paired with storage systems,” said Lisa Reed, manager of energy programs at Holy Cross Energy. The solar-plus-storage combination is particularly powerful because it generates renewable energy during the day while capturing surplus energy to be used at night, she noted.
GCE prioritized the Solarize program as a way to help meet its goal of boosting local solar energy, Metcalf explained. The state of Colorado and the electric utilities that serve the county have set ambitious goals for solar, she noted, and doing our part locally will ensure that the county gets its share of the economic and other benefits of the development.
Solarize programs, which have been successfully implemented in Summit, Mesa and other counties, harness the power of group buying to drive down prices and build community excitement around going solar. GCE engaged Eagle-Vail-based Active Energies Solar as the exclusive solar installer for Solarize Garfield County, which in return offered volume discounts based on the number of systems sold.
In addition to the installer discounts, customers of Holy Cross Energy and Glenwood Springs Electric were able to claim rebates typically amounting to thousands of dollars on a solar system. For Xcel Energy customers who didn’t qualify for rebates through their utility, Garfield Clean Energy offered special $1,500 rebates to level the playing field. GCE distributed the entire $67,500 it allocated for its rebate program, which was made possible through Department of Energy funding.
The Solarize program brought together many of the elements that underlie GCEs approach, according to board member and New Castle Council member Bruce Leland.
Harnessing market forces to ramp up solar energy increases economic activity and employment, attracts more investment to the region, and helps speed Garfield County’s transition to a clean energy economy, he said.
On top of that, noted Leland, investing in solar saves residents substantial money over time. Much of the money not spent on energy will be recirculated locally, further diversifying the economy.
“This is really a shining example of what GCE does and the value it contributes to our county,” Leland said. “All of us involved with Garfield Clean Energy agree that ramping up solar is a powerful economic development strategy, and it’s an important part of the mix for us here in Garfield County. We have such great solar access, and it’s a win-win in terms of reducing people’s energy costs and increasing our energy independence.”
Bohmfalk added that the Solarize program provides needed local action on climate: “As we experience the impacts of climate change like record temperatures, record drought, and record wildfires first-hand right here in Garfield County, people are looking for ways to be part of the solution. Solarize has offered residents a clear and easy step they can take to reduce their carbon footprint by putting solar panels on their roofs.”
GCE conducted Solarize Garfield County in conjunction with Solar Energy International’s Solar Forward Program, which assists rural communities throughout Colorado in growing their solar markets. It also received grant support from the Aspen Skiing Company’s Environment Fund.
Garfield County Community Development Director Sheryl Bower presents the SolSmart Gold Award to county commissioners, from left, Tom Jankovsky, John Martin and Mike Samson.| Provided
Garfield County has earned a SolSmart gold-level community designation for its efforts to promote solar energy.
A national designation program funded by the Department of Energy, SolSmart recognizes cities and counties that are actively encouraging the development of solar markets, according to a recent county news release.
Garfield County Community Development Director Sheryl Bower presented the Board of County Commissioners with the designation during a recent BOCC meeting.
Community Development strived to help the county achieve the SolSmart designation through efforts to make the permitting process easier; training staff for best practices in permitting, inspection, planning and zoning for solar; and by installing solar at Garfield County facilities, Bower said in the release.
“We really looked at our permitting and did a number of things that got us to the gold level,” she said. “We were a pretty solar-friendly county to begin with, but we took it to the next level. We looked at our zoning code and at restrictions and made the necessary changes. We achieved the gold designation, and now we have this beautiful plaque to acknowledge it.”
To achieve the gold designation, a city or county must meet prerequisite criteria in its permitting, inspection, planning and zoning process for solar projects. The applicant must already qualify for bronze and silver level standards, which include providing a complete solar checklist, zoning review, staff training, and then complete solar permit turnarounds in sufficient time to earn gold.
Locally, the program works with Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) to help local governments better navigate the complex process of cutting through red tape to support solar development.
Zuleika Pevec, CLEER’s Clean Energy Program coordinator, noted that there are 28 SolSmart designated jurisdictions in Colorado and Garfield County is one of only five that earned the gold designation.
CLEER’s efforts in Garfield County are funded by a Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) grant, which Garfield County matched. Pevec said the town of Silt has also earned a gold designation, while Carbondale achieved the silver tier.
“Overall, it shows that the communities in Garfield County are open to solar development and the benefits that brings,” she said.
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