We give the Mountain pulpit to Paul Spencer, Founder of Clean Energy Collective.
Ten years years ago, my wife and I built our home in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. It’s off the grid and perfectly sited for solar energy. However, 85 percent of people in mountain communities can’t go solar. About 40 percent are renters—and installing solar doesn’t make financial sense for them. The other 45 percent have poorly sited or shaded properties. Others believe solar’s too cumbersome, too technologically overwhelming, and too expensive. For solar to be part of the solution it has to be accessible to more people and offer a real financial payback. But more than anything it has to be easy.
I’m a serial entrepreneur, so I built a business to take what we learned at my house and put it on steroids. First, we designed an 89-home net-zero neighborhood in the Roaring Fork Valley. By then, solar technology had improved and demand was increasing. The high volume of panels sold pushed down manufacturing costs—and ultimately the cost for homeowners. Our initial strategy was to put solar on every home we built. Unfortunately, a third of the proposed neighborhood butted up against the Roaring Fork River where 100-foot cottonwoods shaded them most of the year. So we thought, “Let’s take the panels off the houses and make one big array for all.” I went to Holy Cross Energy, a progressive utility, with the concept and they agreed to help if we could figure it out.
Then the housing market fell apart in 2008. We still haven’t broken ground on the neighborhood, but the process inspired me. If we can do this for my home, and we can do this for a neighborhood, why can’t we build a solar array on a larger scale for everybody in the utility—in this case 52,000 customers? Individuals would buy into the array and get credit for the solar power produced. Again, Holy Cross said if we could figure it out, they’d support us. I recruited two investors, and we were off.
A year later, we built the nation’s first community-owned solar array. It sold out before we finished construction—338 panels produce 78 kilowatts for 19 customers. Our for-profit business Clean Energy Collective (CEC) has contracted nearly $150 million in projects. We’ve completed or are actively building 45 facilities that produce 28 megawatts across 19 utilities and eight states. Nationwide, CEC has roughly 115,000 solar panels including coverage of about 70 percent of the utility customers in Colorado. It works because it’s easy. Our software integrates with utility billing systems and credits appear on your bill.
Customers fall into two types: A small group of sustainability fanatics with infectious passion. “I haven’t paid a utility bill in three years!” The bigger group sees buying into an array as a smart financial move. Once you put in solar, there’s nothing else to buy. Sunshine is free.
Today, fewer coal-fired, gas, and nuclear power plants are being built. As existing facilities age, the success we’ve had proves that it’s possible to complement fossil fuels with solar. Currently, one percent of the power in the U.S. is generated by solar. Ten percent would be astronomical. We need hundreds of millions of panels to make a real difference, but we’re winning the battle one panel at a time.