How the garden grows

LPEA launches community solar garden project

by Tracy Chamberlin


Every garden starts with the seed. Plant it, water it and watch it grow. The same is true for a community garden, even one made of photovoltaic solar panels.

After years of nurturing the idea of community solar gardens in its service area, La Plata Electric Association is now accepting applications.

“The program is designed to provide all LPEA members, including those who have poor or no solar rooftop space, the ability to participate in solar electric generation,” said Mark Schwantes, manager of corporate services, in an online announcement.

Solar panels rest on a hillside at the Giant gas station off Highway 160 near Twin Buttes. A similar installation is planned for Twin Buttes’ community solar garden./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Essentially, a private solar developer, called the Subscriber Organizer, is the one filling out the application to build the community solar gardens. They are the ones entering into a contract with the local energy cooperative, LPEA.

The organizer is the one who seeks out subscribers to their garden, allotting a certain percentage or share to each one.

The garden must have at least 10 subscribers and be 50 percent spoken for initially. And, one of those subscribers must be a local nonprofit organization. This is one of the ways LPEA is encouraging the community element of the program. Another is that one single subscriber cannot own more than 60 percent of the garden.

The idea, according to Schwantes, is to allow lots of people to be a part of each garden, including local charitable groups.

As for who is eligible for these subscriptions, first and foremost they have to be LPEA members. And when a subscriber moves, they can even take that subscription with them, as long as they still live in LPEA’s service area.

At the end of the month, the electricity generated is measured and each subscriber’s electric bill is credited for the percentage of the array that they own.

Therefore, the amount of energy generated by that garden is used to offset the energy used by the homes and businesses subscribing to it. The excess is then sold back to LPEA.

The amount of generated energy the coop would allow from solar gardens in 2014 is 2 megawatts – an amount the Board of Directors will reconsider for the following year.

Sunny-side up

It turns out, La Plata Electric Association isn’t the only one making solar waves in the Southwest. The Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency, or 4Core, a local nonprofit organization, recently ramped up its Solarize La Plata campaign, which attempts to help the community with solar installation. 4CORE offers education, financing and more, but it is a limited-time program. To get more information, call 259-1916 or visit

-For more information about LPEA’s Community Solar Gardens Program or to apply, visit, call 382-3511 or email

-For more information about LPEA’s Alternative Energy Outlook visit To comment on the AEO, call 382-3511 or email

According to Schwantes, they want to learn some lessons from this year’s rollout before making specific decisions about the coming years.

Besides, the community solar gardens are just a part of LPEA’s renewable energy program. LPEA recently released a draft of its long-term "Alternative Energy Outlook," or AEO. The goal of that plan, which welcomes member input, is to work toward increasing locally generated electric energy purchases. The AEO includes solar energy generation, hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal and more.

Currently, the coop’s agreement with provider Tri-State includes a 5 percent cap on the amount of energy it can produce on its own, but LPEA isn’t close to that number yet.

Schwantes said LPEA could generate about 4 to 5 megawatts from the community solar garden program and still be under the 5 percent mark. Mainly because it’s only the excess generation that is sold back to LPEA that goes toward that 5 percent. Therefore, it’s not something LPEA will have to contend with for another few years.

LPEA’s service area is home to about 400 individual solar systems and it is anticipated that there will be around 450 by the end of this year. All together, those systems generate about 2 megawatts, but again it’s only that excess energy that goes toward the 5 percent cap.

Although many area homes and businesses are adding to that number, installing a solar array at home isn’t viable for many. Maybe they live in an apartment building, on a heavily treed lot or perhaps it’s a question of money, either way LPEA estimates that most homes in their service area can’t support a solar array. The community garden program is therefore a way for LPEA to offer all its members an opportunity to participate in renewable energy programs and, specifically, in solar electric generation.

Several communities and developers from the Four Corners have already expressed interest in participating in the new program, including Twin Buttes and Heartwood, a cohousing neighborhood near Bayfield.

Schwantes said another six to eight, mostly developers in New Mexico and Colorado, have also looked into the possibility.

Marc Snider, communications director for Twin Buttes, said although they’ve got the supplies for a 242 kilowatt array, including infrastructure, construction and more, it’s not the right time to apply.

Snider added that Twin Buttes' developers are excited to work with LPEA on the project when it does happen and are pleased LPEA has listened to the community and is moving forward with the program. “We think it’s great,” he said.

The application deadline is Dec. 31 for private solar developers looking to build a community solar garden in 2014. And, that’s for the developers, or subscriber organizations, looking to build the gardens, not for the subscribers.

LPEA sought input from local solar providers, the community and its energy provider Tri-State before its Board of Directors approved the policy in September.

It seems as though after all those years of nurturing the idea, LPEA can now witness the fruits of its labor.