A new class of solar
Plan for La Plata County solar farm hatched

Solar arrays, like this one on Durango’s Smiley Building, could become much more common around La Plata County. CarbonZero, a local carbon offset company, is floating a plan where households could rent solar energy systems for the same cost as their current electric bill. La Plata County may partner in the effort./Photo by Stephen Eginoire.

by Will Sands

Renewable energy could be coming to the masses in La Plata County. A Durango-based carbon offset company recently hatched an ambitious plan for a local solar farm. Spread on rooftops throughout La Plata County, the array could provide green power to hundreds of local homes without requiring significant green from local pocketbooks.

CarbonZero was founded with the vision of offsetting greenhouse gases in La Plata County with local programs, and new trees have been the company’s backbone. With trees absorbing approximately 1.33 tons of carbon over their lifespan, CarbonZero plants saplings locally in order to eclipse local emissions. Most recently, the company offset the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s entire vehicle fleet by planting nearly 2,600 trees in the Durango area. CarbonZero is also rapidly approaching its goal of planting 10,000 trees each year in La Plata County in order to lighten the local footprint. However, the company is now looking beyond

“We know there’s a lot of demand out there for solar energy,” said Andrew Klotz, one of CarbonZero’s directors. “But the reality is that most people can’t afford photovoltaic systems.”

The average costs for solar energy systems range from $20,000 - $40,000, and Klotz noted that these numbers are cost prohibitive for most La Plata County home owners. As a result, he and fellow director Ian Barrowclough developed an innovative business model where

“We would maintain ownership of the systems and then we essentially lease the system to homeowners so they can enjoy the benefits of solar electricity without realizing any higher costs,” Klotz said.

According to the CarbonZero plan, homeowners could enjoy the luxury of renewable energy while seeing little to no change in their monthly utility bill. “Conceptually, it’s pretty simple,” Barrowclough said. “The homeowner would pay us $70 to $100 a month for the system, and their electric bill should go down $70 to $100 a month after the panels are installed. It should be a wash.”

Klotz added, “This would essentially make full photovoltaic systems available to homeowners for the cost of their current electric bill.”

La Plata County and Durango are ideal locations for this kind of demonstration project, according to CarbonZero, with Southwest Colorado boasting one of the highest solar radiation zones in the country. Once all 330 homes are on board, the “farm” would be capable of producing 1.5 million kilowatts of renewable energy each year, and the project would eliminate 1,500 tons of carbon emissions each year. By partnering with local solar installers, the project would also create and sustain 70 full-time construction jobs over its five-year implementation.

“Beyond helping homeowners and the environment, this could positively impact the local economy and help the construction industry during a tough time,” Barrowclough noted.

Partnership between the private and public sectors is crucial to the solar array’s success, however. Klotz and Barrowclough have already approached La Plata County commissioners about assisting with the effort. According to their proposal, the county would need to create a public improvement district, thereby opening the door to subsidies, tax credits, grants and federal stimulus funds.

Though no decisions have been made, La Plata County is viewing CarbonZero’s plan in a favorable light. During a recent meeting, the commissioners all came away with positive impressions of the pitch. In fact, Commissioner Wally White noted that he might be interested in becoming a customer as well as a partner.

“I told Andrew and Ian that if you pull this together, I’ll put panels on my own house,” White said. “I’ve looked into it, and there’s just no other way I could ever afford them.”

The CarbonZero plan would offer a “creative loophole” for La Plata County residents, according to White. He added that these are demanding environmental times, and government has a responsibility to lead on these kinds of conservation issues.

“I’m personally interested in learning more and seeing if it’s feasible,” White said. “Any step in that direction is a positive one, and we need to seize these kinds of opportunities.”

Klotz and Barrowclough are hopeful that negotiations will bear fruit, and that the company and county can forge a beneficial relationship. If all goes according to plan, CarbonZero would like to have Durango’s solar contractors installing the first photovoltaic systems as early as this fall.

“This is basically a shovel-ready project,” Barrowclough said. “All the pieces are already in place in Durango. We’re hoping to have instant start-up.”



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