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Rooftop solar helping reach ambitious state, regional energy goals

More than 100 renewable systems added every year to LPEA
Paul and Mary Jo Laakso finished a solar-powered home in Edgemont Highlands, northeast of Durango, this summer. The home is one of about 1,200 generating electricity on La Plata Electric Association’s grid. Small solar projects could become a larger part of the energy mix in Colorado as the state transitions to more renewable power.

The state of Colorado and La Plata Electric Association have set ambitious goals to cut carbon and convert to renewable energy. Much of the generation will have to come from utility scale projects, but homeowners could contribute in a big way to the future energy mix.

Edgemont Highlands residents Paul and Mary Jo Laakso planned for decades to build the solar-powered home that they finished this summer and are happy to be contributing green power to the local grid.

“We’re all in this together,” Paul Laakso said.

In January, La Plata Electric Association set a goal of cutting its carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2030 because of residents’ concerns about climate change. Gov. Jared Polis also wants Colorado to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.

Utility scale renewable projects will likely be the largest contributors to green power production, but rooftop solar could contribute a double-digit percentage of the power produced in the state in coming decades, said Mike Kruger, president of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Laaksos built a highly efficient home in Edgemont Highlands. The home faces south to benefit from solar gain year-round. On sunny summer days, their 7.2-kilowatt solar system will consistently produce 50 kilowatt hours of power.

Nationally, Americans relied on fossil fuels for 78 percent of their energy needs in 2017, according the U.S. Department of Energy. Almost 80 percent of the electricity produced in Colorado came from coal and natural gas and 1 percent was produced by solar in 2016, according to the Colorado Energy Office.

Moving away from fossil fuels will require a more concerted effort by individuals who spend, on average, just minutes a year thinking about electricity, Kruger said. For example, Green Tech Media reported U.S. residents spend about 8 minutes a year digitally interacting with their electrical utility.

“We need to have people take a little bit more vested interest into where their energy comes from and how they use it,” he said.

Paul Laakso started thinking about building a solar-powered home during an embargo that drove up oil prices globally in the 1970s. He fulfilled his vision this summer when he finished his house, which is less than 1,700 square feet.

The Laaksos own one of about 1,200 solar systems connected to the grid within LPEA, said Ron Meier, manager of engineering and member relations at LPEA.

The systems are collectively capable of generating 12,200 megawatt hours of power in a year, representing about 6 percent of the residential usage within the grid, said Dan Harms, LPEA’s manager of rates, technology and energy policy. The average home within LPEA uses about 650 kilowatt hours in a month.

Paul Laakso describes the efficient windows in his Edgemont Highlands home. The home was built so airtight the couple had to install an air exchanger to pump in fresh air and remove stale air from individual rooms.

More than 100 renewable systems are connecting to the LPEA grid each year, including 122 in 2015, 145 in 2016, 111 in 2017 and 160 in 2018. Some areas of the local grid have either reached capacity or are near capacity for how much distributed generation they can accept, according to LPEA’s website.

LPEA is researching battery systems that could help it accept more rooftop solar power in those areas, Meier said. The utility could make investments in distributed battery systems in the next few years, he said. There is a total limit for how much rooftop solar LPEA could accept, but the co-op is not close to it yet, he said.

“We want to enable our members to engage with the grid,” he said.

The Laaksos, a retired couple from Minnesota, came to Colorado with solar electricity production and the grid in mind. They selected south-facing property to maximize solar production and keep their home warm in the winter.

“The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use,” Paul Laakso quipped.

In February, as huge snow drifts were piling up outside their house, their living room was a cozy 69 degrees, aided by solar gain, airtight construction and a fully electric heating system.

On sunny summer days, the Laaksos’ 7.2-kilowatt solar system will consistently produce 50 kilowatt hours of power. LPEA tracks the excess power the couple sends out into the grid and allows them to use that much power for free whenever they need it. In late winter, the couple still had three months of power to draw from because of their home’s efficiency. They hadn’t paid for any electrical power since they moved in, aside from LPEA’s monthly base charge, Paul Laakso said.

The furnace in Paul and Mary Jo Laakso’s home uses electricity to heat up water that is then pumped underneath the concrete floors in some rooms.

The Laaksos spent $25,560 on their solar panel system and $15,980 for their radiant floor heating system.

The heating system relies on electricity from either the solar panels or the grid, heating water that is sent underneath the concrete floors. The entire investment qualified for a 30 percent federal tax credit.

The home is split into five heating zones so the couple can turn off the heat to those areas they are not using, Laakso said. The home is so airtight, they had to install an air exchanger to pump in fresh air and remove stale air.

The Laaksos, self-proclaimed environmentalists, made the investment in solar because they considered it the right thing to do and because they consider it part of their legacy.

“We will live on, only remembered for what we’ve done, as the song goes,” Paul Laakso said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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