A drop in the bucket

Solar Benefits Colorado helps residents become more energy efficient

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Courtesy of Brad Smith

Becoming more energy efficient can be a daunting and even expensive process. But with the increasingly apparent effects of global warming, it is a necessary step forward, and it’s getting easier.

“People are waking up to the reality that they do have a choice when it comes to where they get their electricity,” says Willie Mein, owner of Custom Solar, a Boulderbased company. “They can choose clean, renewable energy from the sun that’s produced on site. Or they can continue to essentially rent their power from the utility that never has a payback, and the majority of it comes from burning coal.”

In an effort to move toward greater sustainability, Boulder, Adams and Denver counties are encouraging residents to become more energy efficient through the bulk-purchasing program, Solar Benefits Colorado. Since the start of the program at the end of August, 1,130 Colorado residents have taken advantage of the program, purchasing or leasing rooftop solar, an electric vehicle or both. Due to the success of the program thus far, Boulder County and its partners are extending the group discount rates until Nov. 30 for rooftop solar and Dec. 31 for electric vehicles.

“Analysis has shown that solar is one of the most effective ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Brad Smith, sustainability outreach specialist with Boulder County. “Since a large portion of Boulder County’s carbon emissions come from our homes as well as our cars, we’re really trying to bring these technologies to the masses.”

The program leverages the buying power of residents to offer group discounts in both rooftop solar and electric vehicles. Working with Boulder Nissan and Custom Solar, Boulder County and its counterparts in Adams and Denver counties handle the marketing and outreach for the program, allowing the companies to reduce the cost of their products.

“We’ve really gotten good at lowering some of the hard costs on the technologies themselves. However, some of the soft costs such as customer support and customer acquisition, those still remain,” Smith says. “So what this program has done is say, ‘Hey, we’ll take on the customer acquisition cost,’ and that’s one of the ways the companies have been able to cut costs.”

For the photovoltaic portion of the program, Boulder County “demystifies solar” by providing educational presentations that address common questions and misperceptions of the technology, Smith says. Take, for example, the perception that rooftop solar is too expensive. Although Smith says purchasing solar panels outright is costly, Solar Benefits Colorado introduces people to different financing options, including a power purchase agreement where the solar company installs the panels and then the homeowner purchases solar power from the company at a lower cost than other utilities. Plus, until the end of 2016 there is a 30 percent federal tax credit for installing solar, and although utilities see an average increase of 3 to 5 percent increase each year, solar power only increases at a fixed rate of 1.5 percent, Smith says.

“There’s been a really strong response to the program in areas that I believe have been underserved by solar,” Mein says. “I think a lot of folks in some of these areas have been waiting for solar for a long time and with the volume discount we’re providing through the program, they see this as their opportunity to moving forward and get an installation.”

Mein says his company has been busier than ever as more and more “mainstream” customers are purchasing or leasing rooftop solar.

Increasing the use of electric vehicles is the other side of energy efficiency and Solar Benefits Colorado has drawn national attention as the first program to offer electric vehicles at a bulk rate. In addition to the group-rate discount of up to $8,600 provided through Solar Benefits Colorado, federal and state tax credits can add up to more than $12,000 for a 2015 Nissan LEAF. Since the program began in August, residents have purchased 183 LEAFs, compared to only 37 sold the same two months of last year.

According to an analysis of conventional internal combustion engine vehicles and electric vehicles conducted by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), electric vehicles produce less urban air pollutants that contribute to ozone and greenhouse gases, despite being powered by electricity still generated from the burning of fossil fuels. This has only changed in the last few years, as more and more renewable sources of energy are added to the electric grid and coal-fired electric plants are being phased out in the Denver metro area.

Will Toor, transportation program director at SWEEP, says that by 2017 electric vehicles will have approximately a 30 percent benefit for greenhouse gas emissions compared to a conventional vehicle. “There is a modest benefit that is growing pretty quickly,” he says. “And the benefit just keeps growing because the electricity grid is continuing to add more renewables and get less and less coal-heavy.”

There are challenges to electric vehicle adoption, such as availability of charging stations and the limited 85- to 100-mile range of electric vehicles, but that hasn’t stopped the success of Solar Benefits Colorado.

“We’ll have a lot more electric vehicle charging stations as adoption increases, but we first needed to get folks in these cars and on the road and now the call for EV charging stations is very loud,” says Susie Strife, sustainability coordinator for Boulder County. Currently, there are 54 charging stations throughout Boulder County, but the County is currently applying for a grant to increase charging stations by 20 percent.

Given that most people charge their electric vehicles at home, which works for people who have garages in single-family homes but not those who live in multi-family housing units such as apartment complexes, the greatest demand for charging stations is in shared parking situations. Workplace charging is also in high-demand, as it extends the range an owner can drive an electric vehicle while encouraging more people to purchase the cars. “There is much higher levels of electric vehicle adoption in workplaces where there is workplace charging,” Toor says.

In the long run, Toor says, electric vehicles are key to meeting greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. “You really can’t get there in transportation without vehicle electrification and a very low carbon grid,” he says. “While there are political challenges to getting there, we basically know how we can transform our electrical generating mix towards very high levels of renewable energy. … If we want to get to low carbon transportation, electric vehicles combined with low carbon generation is by far the most plausible way.”

And as Solar Benefits Colorado seeks to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewables on the Front Range, Strife is working with other municipalities, organizations and governments across the nation to implement similar programs. The program has drawn interest from communities in Northern Colorado, Utah and even the U.S. Department of Energy.

“You know what we do here is just a drop in the bucket in terms of greenhouse gas emission reduction,” Strife says. “But if we can replicate the model across the country and do it at a larger scale, we’re much more successful.”