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Summit County commissioners consider community solar programs to reach renewable energy goals

Solar panels collect sun light at the Sulas Sonar Demonstration Garden Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in Silverthorne. Summit County Commissioners are considering multiple options for adding solar to the county’s energy supply.
Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com |

KEYSTONE — In Summit County’s latest effort to go 100% renewable, commissioners are looking to community solar programs. 

At a Summit Board of County Commissioners work session meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 10, Sustainability Coordinator Michael Wurzel presented on potential community solar programs for the commissioners to adopt. 

Wurzel presented two options for the county to consider when it comes to community solar. The county could either subscribe to an existing community solar program or build a community solar garden somewhere within the county.

The subscription model allows for organizations, businesses and individuals to subscribe to an off-site solar grid in exchange for credits on their electricity bill. In Colorado, these grids are usually on the Front Range, where they have plenty of access to sun.

While the credits help the subscribers save money, the county wouldn’t necessarily see the solar energy generated by the off-site grid, Wurzel said. 

“If we subscribe to community solar, we get the bill credit and we save money, however, we don’t technically get the green energy produced by the solar,” Wurzel said.

Typically people have to pay high costs for solar energy if they plan to use it for their homes or their business. The community solar program allows for people to continue paying for electricity through Xcel Energy as they normally would and build credit over time. 

“It provides access to solar without those huge upfront costs, without physical ownership, without land use constraints,” Wurzel said. “It allows people to go solar without physically putting solar on their property.”

The community solar program would also save the county money on electricity, Wurzel said. If the county subscribed to 1 megawatt of power through a community solar program, Wurzel said it would save about $272,678 over 20 years. 

The town of Breckenridge is already subscribed to a community solar program that it anticipates will save $700,000 over 20 years, he said. 

If the county were to choose to subscribe to an existing community solar program, it wouldn’t have to pay any upfront costs or invest in additional infrastructure, Wurzel said. 

If the county decides to create its own solar garden, Summit County’s landscape will make it a challenge. Heavy snow load, higher real estate prices and fewer sunny days all contribute to challenges with solar gardens, Wurzel said. 

County Manager Scott Vargo said the county has looked into partnering with the Summit School District to create a small solar garden in the past and the cost was just too expensive. 

“It’s just more expensive to do it here locally,” he said. “In terms of bang for your buck, it seems like you can get much more if you take an approach similar to what the town of Breck did than if we developed something here in Summit County.”

Commissioner Thomas Davidson said the county should look into other options besides solar that may help it save more and contribute to renewable energy. 

“One of the important things for us to keep in mind is that there are other measures we can take besides solar that may have a bigger bang for our buck,” Davidson said. 

Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence suggested that the county buy land in a rural county that would receive more sunlight and have less challenges for the Summit County to use as its own community garden. 

“I guess I don’t feel that it’s an either or,” Lawrence said. “We probably need to (subscribe to an off-site grid and create a local solar garden) to start to move the needle.”

The commissioners ultimately decided to continue the discussion about community solar at later work sessions, which will include presentations from community solar developers. A final decision on what the county will do about solar will likely be made by the new board after it is sworn in on Jan. 12. 

“I do think these are important priorities for us to look at our climate goals and we’re going to have to look at all options,” Lawrence said. 


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