Colorado regulators fast-tracking rules that may spur spread of community solar projects

Solar energy advocates are hoping that state regulators’ decision to put proposed rules for community solar gardens on a fast track will help Colorado reclaim a leading role in an arena that it pioneered.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is taking public comments through Friday on rules that could expand opportunities for homeowners and others to participate in community solar projects. The PUC decided to carve out community solar from a larger proceeding on electric utilities to more quickly implement a new state law that updates regulations.

The PUC has scheduled a public hearing on the proposed rules Jan. 13.

“Colorado was the first community solar garden market in the country, but it’s really fallen behind the rest of the country,” said David Amster-Olszewski, CEO and founder of Denver-based SunShare, a leading residential community solar provider.

One reason that community solar gardens haven’t grown as much in Colorado as in other states is the limit on their size, Amster-Olszewski said. Legislation approved this year increased the maximum size of an installation to 5 megawatts from 2 megawatts with the option of going up to 10 megawatts starting July 1, 2023.

One megawatt of solar energy can supply electricity to 200 to 250 homes for a year.

Community solar gardens, first approved in Colorado in 2010, are centralized arrays of solar panels that users “subscribe” to. They are used by people whose roofs aren’t suitable for solar panels, who live in an apartment or can’t afford their own system. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden found that only 22% to 27% of residential rooftops were suitable for solar panels.

Another hurdle to increasing solar gardens in Colorado, Amster-Olszewski said, has been the process companies must follow to hook up to the grid via the regulated utilities.

Fort the past three years, Amster-Olszewski said, Xcel Energy-Colorado, the state’s largest electric utility, has allotted from 30 megawatts to 40 megawatts per year for community solar, which works out to roughly 5,000 to 7,000 customers if it was all residential.