The sun was burning, as usual, off my roof in southern Colorado in mid-June when I signed a contract to add solar panels.
Pueblo West’s Big Dog Solar had bombed the neighborhood to take advantage of a 1-to-1 net metering deal offered by Black Hills Energy. By the end of the summer, many of my neighbors had installed solar panels on their roofs or gardens. It made sense to harness this relentless energy and use it to power the air conditioning needed to keep the house habitable during those 100+ degree days, which seem to be more and more frequent.
The Colorado tourism board and solar installers boast that the state enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year, and although this is a myth, it is sunny enough to make solar power a worthwhile investment for the country. Most Colorado households depend on tree shade.
There is no definition or reliable count of “sunny days,” although one website lists Pueblo as 76% sunny and Denver as 69% sunny with 115 clear days a year, and another lists Alamosa with 148 sunny days.
We also have increased solar radiation that comes with higher altitudes.
The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks Colorado sixth in the United States for photovoltaic energy efficiency, after New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Utah, all of which derive higher greater percentage of their electricity from solar power than Colorado.
So why does only 4.3% of the electricity produced in Colorado come from solar power? The 2,131 megawatts of solar capacity we have puts us 13th among states for solar power generation, with enough to power 438,842 homes, according to the association.
The short answer is, we’re getting there.
Not fast enough for ardent solar supporters who would like to see photovoltaic panels all over the “built environment” as they call it. I tend to agree – why build a roof and let the sun shine on it without harnessing that energy, especially in new construction?
âEvery viable roof should have solar power,â said Wade Wilson, a Go Solar associate with Environment America. âWe support individual residences that switch to solar energy, it’s great. But that will not be enough. “
The biggest roofs
That’s why Environment America launched a Solar on Superstores campaign, targeting Walmart. With more than 5,000 stores, Walmart has “plug-and-play solar power sites,” he said.
Add in other big box stores and shopping mall parking lots covered in PV panels and you’re talking about generating serious amounts of electricity. I could even forgive them for leaving their energy-wasting light panels on overnight if they were powered by solar energy, although that energy could be used more wisely for the communities in which they reside.
âIn 2016, Colorado had 140 million square feet of big-box roof space, which could generate 1,244 megawatts of solar PV capacity,â Wilson said in an email. âThat would be enough energy to power 156,000 average homes, or 165 Walmart. This could offset 1,203 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide and save businesses $ 168 million per year. “
Walmart has significant energy goals, promising to be 100% renewable by 2035, according to its website. And it bought more wind power than any other American company in 2019.
Many large retailers, including Albertson’s and Ikea, are quickly turning to renewables. One of the state’s largest retail solar capacity installations, 1 megawatt, is installed at Ikea’s Centennial store, according to SEIA.
Target in 2019 pledged that its electricity consumption will be 100% renewable by 2030 and has invested in two large solar and wind projects this year, according to its website. More than 500 of its stores have solar roofs.
Wilson said if retailers installed solar panels they would be seen by “daily shoppers in rural and mid-sized America, and it would be great to standardize solar power, which we have to do.”
Schools are another visible location for solar panels, and districts are seeing significant energy savings.
In FY2020, the Colorado Energy Office partnered with McKinstry, an energy services company, and Denver Public Schools to retrofit 27 school district buildings, including installing rooftop solar panels on 14 buildings. The project is nearing completion and is expected to save the district $ 1.5 million per year in utility, operation and maintenance costs, according to the Energy Board’s annual report .
The first reports on the effectiveness of the project are expected at the end of the winter.
Go solar or not
For people who want to switch to solar power, however, it’s like jumping into a quagmire of technical overload, misinformation, and spiel. It’s like making any major purchase – beware of the buyer.
Tons of information on residential solar power can be found online. In fact, it is rather intimidating. Simply deciphering the language of energy – kilowatts, kilowatt-hours, megawatts, British thermal units, etc. – required assistance from the Union of Concern Scientists and Our World in Data websites. And let’s not confuse capacity with actual production and use.
Your utility company must approve your system if it is connected to the network. Off-grid systems with battery storage are not an option for most people due to space requirements and cost.
Utilities offer various incentives, but often to a limited number of clients. You can start with the utility or ask a solar installer if they handle the permits required by utilities and local governments.
I used an online solar calculator which gave me an idea of ââthe cost and how many panels I would need. But I quickly got a call and was told I might not hear from the solar installers because my power consumption was low.
He was right, I didn’t hear anything for two months after already having contracted with Big Dog. Big Dog told me up front that I wouldn’t be saving money on solar power, but that I was probably going to break even.
I was more motivated by environmental and climate concerns so it was okay, and to be honest the visibility of the solar panels was rewarding. I felt like I was doing something worthy.
My 8 panel, 3 KW system cost $ 16,500 (installed), which I funded through Good Leap and ultimately managed by the Teachers Federal Credit Union. Big Dog handled all loan and authorization documents with Fremont County and Black Hills Energy.
My initial monthly payment on my 20 year loan at an interest rate of 2.99% is $ 69 – my exact average monthly payment for electricity in 2020. If I put my federal tax credit of 4,290 $ (which is not repayable) on my loan by Feb 2023, the monthly payment the payment remains the same. Otherwise, it will drop in March 2023 to $ 94.27. I also received a loan repayment check for $ 750 for 20 years instead of 25 years.
Because I have a net metering agreement with Black Hills, I am also entitled to a five year tax deduction of $ 2,871 per year. Fortunately, Big Dog has a commissioned solar finance accountant who provides all tax documentation for free.
The best news so far is that the panels cover more than my electricity needs and in three months I have accumulated around 350 kWh. My monthly bill is around $ 10, most of it being a customer charge.
About a third of Colorado’s solar production comes from small rooftop facilities, but warrants push utilities to more renewable energy, and climate change awareness is pushing big companies to do the same. Maybe we could just let the heavy users (like retailers with acres of roofs) and utilities convert to renewables.
Speaking with folks at the Colorado Energy Office, I began to rethink my position “we should have solar panels on every roof in the state” and take a more holistic view of renewables and energy conservation. I don’t regret my decision to go for solar power and encourage others to consider it, but there are many options available to help our future in renewable energy.
Currently, about 42% of the electricity produced for Colorado utilities comes from coal-fired power plants, followed by natural gas at nearly 27% and renewables at nearly 31%, according to the state’s energy profile. compiled by the US Energy Information Administration. Also, about 68% of homes are heated with natural gas.
The pace of the transition to all-electric is strong, but if this electricity is produced in coal or gas-fired power plants, doesn’t that make matters worse?
Not for long, said Kim Burke, senior program manager at the Colorado Energy Office.
âWe’re on a fast enough trajectory to be 80% renewable by 2030,â Burke said.
And if you buy more efficient electrical appliances now, you will reduce your overall energy consumption.
The state has tripled the amount of electricity produced from renewable sources over the past decade, led by wind power, according to the Energy Information Administration. And the coal plants are dismantled.
âThere’s not much you can do. We are in a transition, âshe said. âOver the next 10 years, as your equipment breaks down or ages, put this other technology in place instead. It is a transformation.
Next week: what the state is doing to make sure the transformation happens, and how you can be a part of it.
Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado reporter and editor who has worked for The Gazette and Durango Herald. Now a regular columnist for the Denver Post and a freelance writer, she lives in CaÃ±on City. Email him at [email protected]