Colorado pioneers community solar for low-income residents

Community solar programs have been a hot topic in the United States. These programs, which allow utility customers to subscribe in shares of utility-scale solar projects, are seen as a way to bring the benefits of solar to those who can’t host it on their roof.

On Wednesday non-profit GRID Alternatives took this idea one step further with plans to bring electricity from solar to low-income families, enabled by US$1.2 million in grants from the Colorado Energy Office.

With this funding GRID Alternatives plans to build up to 12 solar PV projects ranging in size from 50 to 500 kW, with a total capacity over 1 MW. In coordination with utilities, these PV projects will supply electricity to at least 300 low-income families, under four-year subscriptions.

In May, GRID Alternatives commissioned a 24 kW-DC solar array, which it built in cooperation with utility Grand Valley Power. GRID partners SunEdison, Enphase and Iron Ridge Racking supplied PV modules, inverters and racking for the project, and eight low-income customers receive bill credits for a portion of the electricity generated.

GRID Alternatives expects these PV installations to offset at least 50% of the electricity use of these families. The company notes that roughly 30% of Colorado housholds pay over 4% fo their annual income on utility bills, and that 11% pay over 10% of their annual income to utilities.

Building the community solar installations will also provide workforce training opportunities. For the Grand Ridge project, GRID staff, solar job trainees, students and community volunteers provided construction labor.

GTM Research estimates that there was 66 MW of community solar installed in the United States at the end of 2014, and the company expects 115 MW to be installed this year. Over the next five years, GTM Research forecasts at 59% annual growth rate for community solar.