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Solar installation reaps $10,000 savings for one La Plata County fire district

Upper Pine’s panels are expected to pay for themselves within 10 years
The solar panel array atop the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District's administration building provides more power than needed. (Courtesy of Upper Pine River Protection District)

One La Plata County fire district has lit a successful backfire to decrease its carbon footprint and save some month-to-month money until the day it extinguishes its electric bill completely.

Upper Pine River Fire Protection district knocked $10,000 off its electric bill in the year since solar panels were installed on three of its 11 buildings. The district signed a six-year lease agreement with Shaw Solar of Durango for the array of panels that led to the savings on the district’s 2022 bill.

The lease has Upper Pine paying Shaw $15,528 a year for six years before the district owns the panels and associated equipment outright. At that rate the final price tag will be $93,168. If the district continues to save at least $10,000 a year on its La Plata Electric Association bill, the panels will pay for themselves within 10 years.

The three arrays have provided an excess of energy thus far, which is then sold to LPEA.

There are, however, a couple of wrinkles the district would like to get ironed out.

“We could be saving a lot more if the LPEA would change their deal,” said Bruce Evans, the district’s fire chief. “The system is actually generating enough power to exceed the district’s power consumption, however, due to the metering rules the credits are only applied to those stations with panels.”

The district hopes the electric company will allow for aggregate net metering for nonprofits so that it can combine its 10 fire station meters to offset the ones that do not have solar panels.

Excess energy created by the three solar-equipped stations is currently accounted for with an end-of-the-year rebate check from LPEA, which credits only the meters where the excess is produced, leaving the other seven stations in a lurch that keeps them paying for electricity.

“So even though three of my meters are generating a surplus, the other seven meters are in the negative,” Evans said.

The second wrinkle is more of an accounting issue around LPEA’s month-to-month billing cycle. For example, the electric bill at the district’s administration building in 2021, before the solar installation, was $5,991. After the installation, the 2022 bill was $888. But why, if the array created surplus, was there still a bill to be paid?

Heavy snowfall and lack of sunlight in December and January meant the panels supplied less electricity than needed – generating a bill for that month and some – which is not credited back until the end of the year.

“The other 10 or 11 months were all excessively positive, especially in the summer,” Evans said.

“Next Thursday the LPEA board is meeting with their finance people about whether they're going to change the policy on this,” Evans said. “I don't know what all the particulars are about what's holding it up. We're going to submit a letter supporting that aggregate metering and how it could help us out more. And then from an accounting standpoint it would be much nicer for us if we just had enough credits every month to pay our electric bill.”

And again, Evans added, aggregate net metering, with three of the meters “grossly overproducing” while the other seven are not, would mean a net gain instead of a loss.

The solar array atop the district’s administration building supplies enough energy to support a car-charging station while still supplying excess it sells back to La Plata Electric Association. (Courtesy of Upper Pine River Fire Protection District)

As if to punctuate the overproducing point, the array on the district’s administration building is supplying enough energy to support an adjacent electrical vehicle charging station – which brings in extra revenue. The station was paid for with grant money.

The Durango Fire Protection District was approached about installing solar panels, said Chief Hal Doughty, but the deal involved tax credits and leasing so the district passed.


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