A SUN co-op member in Denver, Stacey Decker, sits among her new panels. Courtesy of Solar United Neighbors

Solar energy may become a communal effort in Boulder County.

On Monday, Sept. 18, at the Lafayette Public Library, Boulder County residents can learn about the benefits of adding rooftop solar panels — and the benefits of doing so in tandem with their neighbors. The effort is led by Solar United Neighbors (SUN), a national nonprofit working to remove barriers for homeowners wanting to put panels on their roofs. Boulder County is providing financial support, and cities and towns are backing the initiative with enthusiasm, though not cash.

“Our goal is to be sure any homeowner who’s interested in going solar in the county has an easy on-ramp to achieving that,” said Tanner Simeon-Cox, a program director with Solar United Neighbors.

The idea behind SUN is group discounts. By going to local solar installers with a large group of interested community members behind them, SUN can potentially obtain a bulk discount on solar panels and installation for local homeowners. Yet co-op members would still sign their own contracts and buy their own systems.

“One of the top points of confusion we see is folks thinking that because it’s a co-op, individual homeowners are not going to own and benefit from individual systems,” said Simeon-Cox. He said people think the co-op is like a solar garden situation, where community members invest together in off-site solar and then use the electricity generated from it. While solar gardens are great, Simeon-Cox said, the new Boulder County solar co-op is not that. 

“Our program is designed for homeowners interested in installing solar on their own roofs,” Simeon-Cox said.

While it’s not possible to predict the cost benefit Boulder County residents will see from group bidding, Simeon-Cox said other Colorado co-ops have enjoyed hefty savings. “This year’s Denver program is seeing an average 22% savings compared to market rate.”

And a reduced rate isn’t the only benefit. SUN also handles a good portion of the logistics for homeowners.

Carolyn Elam, Boulder’s energy systems senior manager, said one struggle she and other city staff have heard from Boulderites when seeking bids from solar installers is that “you get all these quotes that are not apples-to-apples comparisons.” She said SUN helps circumnavigate that struggle.

“We’ve certainly heard from communities that [SUN] has simplified the experience for customers and helped drive higher [solar] adoption rates,” she said.

Elam said that while the City of Boulder is a partner in the co-op process, it’s not providing any funding to SUN. 

“We as municipalities are supporting the co-op by helping amplify it and connect potential customers with SUN,” she said. 

All towns and cities in Boulder County have signed on as partners, with Boulder County acting as a funding partner. County staff told Boulder Reporting Lab a specific funding amount has not been determined yet. On its website, Boulder County says the project will “help residents and small businesses go solar, for less money and with less hassle.”

Aside from partnering with cities and counties, the nonprofit runs mostly on individual and foundation donations. Nothing is added to co-op members’ costs to fund SUN. 

A Broomfield SUN co-op member celebrates his new power generators. Courtesy of Solar United Neighbors

The member goal of the Boulder County co-op is 200 by Nov. 30. Of those 200, SUN hopes 50 end up signing individual contracts with a single solar provider, Simeon-Cox said. This 25% figure is roughly the proportion of other projects. Last year in Broomfield, of 175 people who became SUN co-op members, 40 ended up signing their own contracts with Sandbox Solar, a Fort Collins-based solar installer.

“We understand our model doesn’t make sense for everybody, which is why the program and services we offer are 100% obligation and cost free,” Simeon-Cox said. “If you get into the program and decide either the cost doesn’t align with what you’re looking at, or you just want to go talk to installers on your own, we will always help facilitate that process. Because we understand each household has different needs.”

Even before late November — when the co-op is set to close to new members — SUN said it will start putting out requests for bids from local solar installers. As bids come in, they’re incorporated in a spreadsheet that’s then presented to members of the co-op. A signing deadline to commit will come in late December.

“As a nonprofit, we are 100% vendor neutral,” Simeon-Cox said. “We do not promote or push any company over another.” 

Instead, a night is chosen for co-op members to come together to review the potential companies, with Solar United Neighbors answering questions both related to the cost of each company, as well as the customer feedback of each. Then the cohort decides what company to go with. 

“Our members are the ones who vote on the company who serves the co-op,” Simeon-Cox said.

Once an installer is selected, Solar United Neighbors meets with the company frequently to ensure “our members are being taken care of.”

Can Xcel meet grid capacity needs for these solar installations?

Getting down initial costs and managing logistics could help lower the barrier to entry for many Boulder County homeowners, but that’s not the only hurdle to mass adoption of residential solar. 

Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility that uses fossil fuels to generate 58% of its Colorado electricity, has, along with many utilities, viewed distributed energy as potentially fatally disruptive to its business model. It has also recently faced criticism for prolonged solar hookup times for customers across Colorado. Xcel previously told Boulder Reporting Lab that the delays were “largely due to federal and state incentives” that increased demand for solar installations and created a subsequent backlog.

“We completed more than 18,000 applications in 2022,” said Michelle Aguayo, a media relations representative for Xcel Energy, then, “a 34% increase compared to the previous year.” 

And higher adoption of solar, if done too quickly in old neighborhoods, could pose its own problem in terms of grid capacity.

“The City of Louisville is very interested in promoting any kind of solar energy and partnering with Xcel to get our needs met,” said Deborah Fahey, mayor pro tem of Louisville who will be speaking at the Sept. 18 event. “One of our biggest challenges is: Can Xcel provide the [grid capacity] needed to [manage] all these solar installations?” 

If you’re ready to become a member of the co-op, you can join on the Solar United Neighbors website. As of Sunday, 25 people had signed up.

Sept. 18 is the first of several information sessions. In late October there will be another on at the Boulder Public Library, with a third on Zoom in mid-November.

The event is Sept. 18, from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Lafayette Public Library, 775 Baseline Road. Residents should feel free to attend without obligation to the join the co-op. The event is a chance to get a better understanding of solar as a whole, the benefits of doing it with a cohort, and the financing and economics of what panels on your roof would mean.

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other climate-related issues for Boulder with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.

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