Anyone who gets an electric bill from Kit Carson Electric Cooperative will soon be able to own a small piece of Northern New Mexico’s renewable energy pie.

Crews are working on a “community solar garden” that will be mounted atop a parking canopy at Taos Charter School. The array is set to go live July 23.

For $845, co-op customers can buy one of 420 panels that will offset their energy use and reduce their monthly cost of electricity.

The co-op initially planned to own and operate the community solar project itself, but it was recently handed off to Clean Energy Collective based in Carbondale, Colo. Clean Energy Collective will own the array and sell individual panels. The co-op has agreed to buy power from the array for the next 20 years.

Those who buy a panel won’t literally be getting solar-powered electrons pumped straight to their home or business. Instead, panel owners are credited for the energy their portion of the array puts into the co-op’s grid every month.

“You’re sharing your power with everybody,” said Mark Johnson, owner of Sol Luna Solar, based in Dixon.

Sol Luna was awarded the construction contract for the array. Group 3 Development of Taos erected the steel girders that will support the panels.

Johnson’s company has been installing residential solar units in the area for the last six years. This is Sol Luna’s first large array, and Johnson said he’s excited about the idea of community solar.

“It’s like your own power plant that you’re using to offset the use of fossil fuels,” Johnson said. “That’s an important concept to a lot of people. It’s really doing your part.”

One of community solar’s selling points is the fact that anyone — homeowners, renters, businesses — can tap into renewable energy without having to fork out tens of thousands of dollars installing a system on their own property.

Johnson said it would take about 15 solar panels to completely power the average single-family home. A system that size would cost about $23,000 to install at a home or business, Johnson said. At the community solar array, 15 panels would be cost about half that amount.

Long-term investment

Community solar proponents contend that the smaller initial cost means a greater return in the long run.

Here’s an example: Suppose you’re an average residential Kit Carson customer who uses about 450 kilowatt-hours each month. If you wanted to offset half of your electric bill with solar power, you would need to purchase seven community solar panels at an initial cost of $5,915.

With your seven solar panels, the co-op calculates that you would generate around 225 kilowatt-hours a month, and it would give you a credit of around $32 — about half the cost of energy on your current electric bill. At that rate, it would take about 15 years to pay back the cost of the panels.

Reyes points out that the cost of electricity is tied to prices from Tri-State Energy and Transmission — the co-op’s power supplier. As such, most increases in electricity cost are beyond the control of the co-op. And those costs are trending upward.

The monthly rebate to those who buy a panel from the community solar array will match the current cost of energy from Tri-State. That could mean bigger monthly rebate amounts per kilowatt-hour and a quicker return on your investment. Assuming that the cost of energy rises 5 percent per year, Clean Energy Collective estimates that it will take just 12.2 years to pay off the panels.

Clean Energy Collective has a 50-year warranty on its panels, and the 37-plus years left on the life of the panel are pure savings, the company argues.

If you move, your panel can be resold, donated to a local non-profit or transferred to a family member still served by Kit Carson Electric.

No matter how many community solar panels you buy, you cannot erase your power bill altogether. Co-op members will still receive a monthly bill for the $14.50 base charge for each meter on your account, regardless of how much credit you get for solar power.

Johnson of Sol Luna said it will cost about $360,000 to build the array. He said eight of his employees will work on the two-month project.

Co-op spokesman Steve Fuhlendorf said he’s been charged with marketing the panels in the community solar array. He said there has been interest from potential buyers, but no panels have yet been sold.

“We’ve certainly got some serious inquiries,” Fuhlendorf said. “I don’t anticipate it will take long to sell. There’s a lot of community support for this.”

Clean Energy Collective offers financing programs through which members can pay for panels in installments.

Depending on the success of this initial community solar array, Reyes said the co-op is looking at similar projects in Peñasco, Red River and Angel Fire.

‘People want this’

In the last five years, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative has taken an aggressive approach to incorporating solar power into its grid — so aggressive that it has essentially maxed out the renewable energy it can produce.

Under a contract with Tri-State that expires in 2040, only 5 percent of the electricity co-op members consume can be from renewable sources owned by Kit Carson. The 5-percent cap matches a state rule that will require New Mexico co-ops to get 5 percent of their total electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

The community solar initiative may be a way to skirt that contractual obligation to Tri-State. Because the community solar array is owned by Clean Energy Collective, and because the panels are technically owned by individual members rather than the co-op, Reyes argues that Kit Carson is not producing the energy itself.

Even if it doesn’t own the array, the co-op enjoys some perks by having green energy on its system. For every kilowatt hour of renewable energy it puts on the grid, the co-op gets a Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) that can be bought and sold on the open market. Tri-State buys the co-op RECs, reducing the co-op’s power cost and, in the end, members’ electric bills.

Exactly what those credits are worth depends on incentives from state and federal governments. Reyes acknowledged there is a chance those incentives may change depending on the political winds.

“There is some exposure for the incentives not being there, but I think there is risk in anything that we do,” Reyes said. “Taos as a community embraces sustainability. I think people want this.”

Worldwide, the price of solar panels is dropping dramatically. Reyes believes that in a few years, the cost of solar energy will be on par with coal or natural gas. He noted that the community solar array will cost about $50,000 less than the parking canopy at Kit Carson Electric.

Last December, the co-op approached the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission about extending an incentive known as the “three-to-one” credit. Under that credit, every kilowatt hour of solar energy production a New Mexico co-op added before Dec. 31, 2011 would count as three kilowatt hours toward meeting the requirement of 5 percent by 2015. The credit would also triple the value of RECs that the co-op could sell to Tri-State.

Reyes told the Public Regulation Commission in written testimony that four solar projects, including the community solar array, were delayed because of issues such as site location, negotiations with property owners, inclement weather and acquisition of financing. Without the extension Reyes argued that co-op members would lose more than $1.4 million worth of credits from Tri-State.

The commission approved an extension of the “three-to-one” credit until June 30. However, the community solar array did not meet that deadline. Fuhlendorf said the co-op is in discussion with the Public Regulation Commission about how to handle the situation.

Another array, currently being built by Blue Sky Energy on Taos Mesa, also did not meet the June 30 deadline. The Public Regulation Commission ruled June 7 that the Blue Sky array would only receive a two-to-one credit.

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