The Energy Blend: Second solar garden in the valley assists people with low incomes | CraigDailyPress.com

The Energy Blend: Second solar garden in the valley assists people with low incomes

YVEA taps state grant to energy nonprofit to help usher in solar for households with modest incomes

Tom Ross

A new solar array in the Yampa Valley will help cut the cost of electricity for families who qualify to be a part of the program.

— The cobalt September sky and mild temperatures in the high 60s provided the perfect atmosphere for small packs of volunteers in yellow vests and hard hats, who were installing a new solar array on the Steamboat Springs campus of Yampa Valley Electric Association.

The array will help cut the cost of electricity for families who qualify to be a part of the program.

"Seventy degrees is the optimum ambient temperature for solar generation," Jeff Bintz said. "Heat is resistance. Cold is better than hot.”

And even a little reflective snow on solar panels on a winter morning can improve solar panel performance.

That's good news for solar generation in the sometimes extreme climate of Northwest Colorado.

Bintz is the construction manager for the nonprofit solar installation firm GRID Alternatives, which received a $1.2 million grant from the Colorado Energy Office last year to partner with utilities such as YVEA to create affordable access to solar in rural areas of the state.

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The new array at YVEA is the fourth project resulting from that grant and is expected to serve 35 or more households. But it's about much more than that.

Interested in accessing GRID's affordable solar program?

Brandee Cooklin, SolarCorps outreach fellow for GRID Alternatives, said a number of people have already applied to receive power from the new solar array intended for moderate- to low-income households. The first step is to fill out a questionnaire intended to pre-qualify a household's eligibility. E-mail Cooklin at colorado@gridalternatives.org to get started.

"Equity and access to solar has been a huge issue," Joe Pereira, of the Colorado Energy Office," said Friday in the midst of a community celebration of the new solar garden, which is easily visible from Elk River Road just north of its intersection with U.S. Highway 40.

Pereira was referring to the reality that middle- to low-income households that don't have thousands of dollars to invest upfront are typically shut out of accessing alternative forms of energy. Rural electrical cooperatives such as Yampa Valley Electric Association, Grand Valley Power, Holy Cross Energy and Delta-Montrose Electric Association are taking a leadership role in working with nonprofits to make affordable solar happen.

"We feel the co-ops are the key because they are member-owned," Pereira said.

He added that the leadership of the rural cooperatives has been instrumental in inspiring the major power utility Xcel Energy to agree to make a significant investment in providing community solar to low- to middle-income households in the next three years.

GRID Executive Director Chuck Watkins agreed and praised the Colorado Energy Office and YVEA.

"The number-one problem in the solar industry is there's not access to low- to modest-income families. And they are the ones that will benefit the most," he said.

Also benefitting from the solar installation were the volunteers who turned out this week for a hands-on experience. Audrey Pritchard, of Craig, was putting attachment hardware on solar panels and husband, Glenn, was helping to lift them into place.

Harry Jeffries, of London, England, was on sabbatical from his job as an appraiser for a large real estate company and volunteered for the project in order to gain insights in how to value solar installations.

Another member of the crew was 31-year YVEA service department employee Mike Seick, who climbed a ladder to bolt the solar panels in place.

"We've seen a lot of changes,” Seick said.

YVEA CEO Diane Johnson told her audience Sept. 16 that she was drawn to the GRID's program because it works on several levels.

In addition to extending solar to modest-income households, the new array creates

workforce training, both for her employees and the 50 women who came from across the region and across the country last week to obtain skills that are fundamental to the solar industry.

"We chose this (project) because it's right here in our backyard, literally," Johnson said, and "allows our employees — engineers, line crews (and more) — to become competent and comfortable with solar electricity. The advantage is that we own it, and we will maintain it. We're looking forward to that challenge."

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1