FIRC, Alpine Bank partner to bring local households a little bit of sunshine | SummitDaily.com

FIRC, Alpine Bank partner to bring local households a little bit of sunshine

Elise Reuter
ereuter@summitdaily.com

A little bit of sunshine can bring back large yields, with Summit County's solar gardens seeing an unprecedented use this summer.

"It's really quite by magic these photons turn into electrons and create clean, inexhaustible energy," said Rebecca Cantwell, Executive Director of Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association. "How lucky I feel to be here today, to work on advancing this energy source."

Summit County's Family and Intercultural Resource Center will see a little bit of this "magic" thanks to a donation by Alpine Bank, who purchased several solar panels and deed them to the FIRC. Now, the local nonprofit will be able to use solar energy credits to help subsidize families' energy bills.

"Every year we see families that have been struggling during the winter months because their energy bill is so high," FIRC family support manager Michel Infante said. "Our goal is, by dropping their expenses, they can use that income for something else."

Three families have already signed up for the program, he added. Electric baseboard heaters are used in many Summit County homes—not the most energy efficient source of heat. On average, Infante said the families the FIRC serves come in with $250 energy bills during the winter, putting them in a pinch for groceries, rent and other necessities. In addition, most FIRC-supported families spend between 50 and 60 percent of their income on housing alone.

"When you're raising a family in that kind of environment, it's difficult to pay for everything else," FIRC Executive Director Tamara Drangstveit said. "Receiving this donation of the solar energy credits, we're going to be able to help a variety of families in summit county offset their energy bills so they can start saving for their child's college or get health insurance for when their child's hurt."

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Alpine Bank purchased 85 solar photovoltaic panels from Summit County's community solar array, the equivalent of about 25 kW. The energy generated by the panels is transferred to participants' utility company — in this case, Xcel Energy — allowing them to save money on energy bills.

For the amount donated by Alpine Bank, the FIRC will be able to subsidize about 100 percent of energy costs for 20 homes, but may choose to assist more families at with partial subsidies. The donated solar garden segment will belong to the local nonprofit indefinitely.

"It's theirs to keep," said Noel Hansen, Alpine Bank regional marketing director. "We identified the FIRC as the perfect organization to house this project and administer it in the way it's intended."

She added Alpine Bank got the idea from its own shares with local community solar gardens, which power several of their offices across the state. Under Xcel Energy's Solar*Rewards program, the benefits can be transferred to any local property Xcel supplies.

"I was a part-time resident here in the sixties. At that time housing was affordable," Alpine Bank Chairman and founder Bob Young quipped. "I understand that things have changed a lot since then. … We hope this helps inspire others to think creatively about strengthening our communities."

CATCHING RAYS

Summit County's solar arrays were constructed back in 2013, with the assistance of the High Country Conservation Center and the Clean Energy Collective, a Louisville, Colo.-based energy business. In total, both of the county's community solar gardens are 2,000 panels, or 500 kW in size.

"It's a great day for making clean energy," Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson grinned as he looked up at the bright, summer sun overhead.

"We knew it was the right thing to do in terms of cleaner air," he said. "We had no idea Alpine Bank would turn around and do this."

The partnership will be the first of its kind, in a state that pioneered the use of community solar gardens. Clean Energy Collective CEO Paul Spencer said he came up with the idea seven years ago, just before his company's inception.

"I was looking for a way to allow everybody to have solar," he said, noting the energy source isn't available to those who don't own their own house, or don't have the right kind of roof to install panels. Now, he said the industry has grown to $40 billion.

Joseph Pereira, director of low-income energy services for the Colorado Energy Office, commended the program as a creative solution to an ongoing problem. While renewable energy is becoming more affordable and accessible, Pereira said the conversation about providing it to low-income households is just at its beginning stages.

"This is really an innovative idea, to be a facilitator to pass these benefits on," he said. "This is just a logical connection that clean energy and social wellbeing are linked."