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Colorado used to be a national leader in home solar. Two big moves could push it back on top.

Namaste Solar workers install 24 solar panels onto a residence in southeast Boulder May 23, 2023. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
State awarded $156 million federal grant to get rooftop solar for low-income families, while a bill in the legislature would boost community solar projects

Colorado was once a leader in connecting individual rooftops and community solar gardens to the grid in support of building a renewable energy economy, solar advocates say, but the state fell behind as others wrote more efficient laws or offered enticing incentives.

Two new developments could help push Colorado back toward the top of clean energy lists, those advocates say. Here’s a quick recap:

Colorado wins federal solar grant

Colorado’s Energy Office on Monday won a $156 million grant from the federal “Solar for All” program, meant to create low-cost loans and other incentives for low-income families to acquire rooftop solar power. The incentives could also go to new solar arrays for multifamily low-income apartment buildings.

Promoters of Solar for All, like Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, also say the grants could pay for more low-income residents to sign up for community solar gardens, which are built on parking lots and other off-site locations and provide groups of subscribers a discount off their electric bill.

“Families for whom the startup costs have been prohibitive will now have the support they need to invest in solar panels,” Sanders’ office said.

The Colorado Energy Office said in a statement that it plans to distribute the Solar for All grants to “competitively selected project partners to help administer the program.” The projects funded will range from directly paying for a full installation to providing revolving loans and offering tax or other incentives to developers.

The individual grants were part of a $7 billion overall package announced Monday nationwide. The state energy office said contracts with the EPA will not be finished until later this year, and then Colorado could take another year to plan and launch the program.

Another Colorado-based entity won a similar $156 million grant to focus on disseminating rooftop and community solar on tribal lands across the nation. The Longmont-based nonprofit Oweesta Corp. will distribute the solar building money in conjunction with Community Development Financial Institutions already working with tribal governments on economic projects, the EPA said.

A Colorado bill will help community solar catch up

The big federal grant to Colorado was won with the help of backers of a 2024 state bill that if it passes is intended to boost development of new community solar projects in the state.

With a community solar garden, a nonprofit or for-profit developer creates an array of a few megawatts on open space within a community. Resident subscribers get a monthly discount off their energy bill, and the developer connects to the grid and sells the energy to Xcel or the local power company. Various assistance programs can provide the subscriptions free or at a discount to income-qualified residents.

“Other markets across the country are bringing on upward of 100 to 200 megawatts a year of community solar,” said Kevin Cray, senior regional director for policy and government affairs with the Coalition for Community Solar Access. “Colorado, which has the longest standing program, has brought on about 170 megawatts over the last 12 years, so about 14 megawatts a year. I think there have been some systemic issues with the program that have really limited its success.”

Senate Bill 207 would:

Reiterate requirements for investor-owned utilities to accommodate connections with new community solar projects.

Reserve at least 51% of community solar projects for income-qualified residential subscribers.

Deliver income-qualified residential customers a 25% bill credit discount, which increases to up to 50% with federal tax credits.

Adopt more efficient subscriber enrollment methods and consumer protections.

Give the Public Utilities Commission authority to evaluate community solar program requirements in 2028.

“If we look at newer community solar programs, their statutes are much more robust,” Cray said. The bill provides “very clear guidance to the commission on how they want the programs to work.”

Provisions of the bill would make the paperwork simpler on what subscribers must show to prove income qualification, while also easing the utility side by reforming interconnection rules for the solar gardens and making sure the utilities provide hosting capacity for the new energy.

“Unsticking some of those barriers,” Cray said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.