A solar project in Aurora that will power office buildings, homes and retail stores is a great example of how updates to a state law on communal solar gardens are helping expand renewable energy opportunities, the developer said.
Unico Solar Investors, Excelsior Energy Capital and Namasté Solar are jointly building four new community solar gardens with a total output of 8 megawatts. Unico Solar, the owner / operator, said 75% of the project for commercial users is complete and residential customers are lined up.
Adam Knoff, director and co-founder of Unico Solar, said office buildings will make up most of the commercial users. The square footage of the commercial buildings is 781,859.
“The group of commercial and industrial buildings that traditionally had no access to solar were commercial office buildings,” said Knoff. “They are obviously a great source of both electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Part of the challenge is that office buildings are often tall and thin, making it difficult to install enough solar panels to efficiently generate the electricity they need, Knoff said
Community solar gardens are centralized arrangements of solar panels that are connected to utility systems. Users subscribe and then receive credits on their monthly utility bills. The projects are alternatives when the roof of a building is not big enough for solar panels or is not in a good location. They are also an option for people living in apartments or condominiums.
About 75% of households in the Denver area cannot put solar panels on their roofs, according to Senator Chris Hansen, who sponsored a 2019 bill to expand access to solar gardens in the community.
“There has been no significant amount of residential space in the Xcel Energy collaborative solar gardening program in the past,” said Knoff
Unico Solar and its partners have committed to providing 25% of the subscription base for residential use “to expand the benefits of access to solar and renewable energy,” said Knoff.
Colorado was a leader in community solar gardens and passed the country’s first statewide program in 2010. However, solar attorneys and industry officials say the state has since lagged behind other states due to project size limits and other restrictions.
Changes made to expand access to communal solar gardens included increasing the maximum size of a project from 2 megawatts to 5 megawatts. The upper limit will be increased to 10 megawatts after July 1, 2023.
Denver-based SunShare is the first Colorado company to turn on power to a 5 megawatt solar garden under the updated law. The company announced Wednesday that the new solar garden in Weld County will provide power to 450 households, as well as the city of Westminster and the Highlands Ranch Community Association.
Law changes included removing the requirement that subscribers must live in or next to the county where the project is located. This requirement limited the number of solar gardens because there are many potential customers in the Denver area where less land is available.
Knoff said the 2019 law helped make Unico Solar’s project possible as the company could place the four projects side by side. “The more solar you can build in one place, the greater the economies of scale that are indirectly reflected in lower subscription rates and discount rate payers.”
While the updates took into account some of the constraints, proponents say the Commission’s rules for public utilities enforcing the law are a mixed bag for the industry, and that demand is still exceeding available capacity.
In 2020, Xcel Energy offered 75 megawatts for solar gardens in the community. However, bids from solar companies totaled around 400 megawatts, said Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association.
According to a report from Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electricity company, in 2020, 93.2 megawatts of solar gardens were in operation, and 320.7 megawatts were in operation or being allocated through the system at the end of 2019.
Black Hills Energy announced that by the end of this year there will be 10 community solar gardens with a total capacity of 10.5 megawatts, of which 2.5 megawatts will be dedicated to low-income customers
One megawatt of solar energy can supply 200 to 250 households with electricity.
Unico Solar started out as the sustainability department of the Unico Investment Group. The company partnered with Excelsior Energy Capital last year to create the UX Solar joint venture. Namasté Solar is a co-developer and designed and built the arrays.
The project will gradually go into production. The first 2-megawatt section is scheduled to begin in May.
Updates the story to add that the first 5 megawatt community solar garden built under the new law is in operation.