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How to get solar power for your Colorado home – even if your own roof won’t work

If your own roof won’t work or you live in an apartment, you can try a community option instead, experts say
Shaw Solar & Energy Conservation employees Scott Archer, left, and Tim Murphy place 12 275-watt solar panels on a home west of Durango in November 2014. The system is a hybrid 3.3-kilowatt grid tie with a battery backup system. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Consumer interest in benefiting from cheap and clean solar energy continues to soar, despite higher interest rates slowing demand for direct-purchase home systems.

Residential solar grew 12% in the U.S. last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Overall solar capacity grew a remarkable 51%, as developers plugged in a host of utility-scale solar farms across the nation.

There are a number of ways for Colorado residents to link up with solar, and we keep getting questions, so we’ve consulted some experts to lay out your options. Thanks to Solar United Neighbors, Colorado Solar and Storage Association, and more.

1. If you are a homeowner, first ask professionals for a cost estimate of owning panels

Four basic factors can help you start assessing on your own whether your home works for solar on the roof.

One is orientation – if you have a north-only facing roof, there won’t be enough exposure to generate significant power. All other orientations have a possibility of working. A second factor, says Solar United Neighbors’ Tanner Simeon-Cox, is shading. If you are surrounded by tall trees or buildings, odds are poor. Third is space available: A small home solar system needs about 200 square feet of useful roof space to start. Fourth is the age of your roof – if your current roof is 15 years old or more, your cost for a solar system will need to include replacing the roof.

Solar United Neighbors can help you answer these basic questions, as can private installers. There are plenty of Yelp reviews and other services to get recommendations for reliable private installers. Buying your own system can cost $20,000 to $30,000, but thousands of that can come back to you in a federal tax credit. You then are saving most or all of your monthly electric bill. If on some days you produce more energy than your household needs, you can actually earn back credits from Xcel or other utilities for sending it back out onto the grid for the utility to “buy.”

Many installers have online calculators that look at a satellite image of a roof and calculate what a system would cost, and how much it would save you on your bills. This will give you an estimated “payback” for your investment, often seven years or more.

You might want to price in a battery storage option for your solar. Tesla has popularized the idea with its retail arm installing panels and a Powerwall for storage, to use when the sun is not producing for you.

2. If Option 1 seems too expensive, look into cooperative buying

If you’ve asked installers or other advisers and buying a whole panel system on your own won’t work, talk to Solar United Neighbors about their main activity: creating cooperative buying groups. People in your town can join together and make a deal with one installer, giving each homeowner a significant discount on a home system. The installer benefits by having a guaranteed set of projects relatively close together.

“Our experts support you through each stage of the solar process,” says Solar United, which is a nonprofit. You sign an individual contract for a system designed for your home, but you deal with a known installer, at a good price. If there is not currently a group in your area you can join, Solar United puts you on a waitlist and looks for others to join you.

The advantage of cooperative buying is that you are joining a support group “for life,” said Simeon-Cox. You have an instant network of other expert homeowners for any troubleshooting. And if, god forbid, your installer eventually leaves the business, Solar United Neighbors can help you find a replacement to handle maintenance, upgrades or other issues.

3. If Option 2 doesn’t work, consider a lease

If you can’t afford cash or can’t get a loan to pay for your own installed solar system, a lease is another option to consider. The installer takes the risk of paying for the equipment and putting it on your house.

The trade-off is that you don’t get all the savings – the installer takes some of them to fund the equipment. You also give up the right to take any tax credits, since you don’t own the system. A more detailed guide to solar home financing options is here.

4. If Option 3 doesn’t make sense, join a community solar garden

Your home might be panel-resistant. And, many people reading this live in apartments or rental homes where they don’t have control of the rooftop. So a community solar project might be waiting out there for you. Most informational websites on community solar say you can expect about a 10% savings on your electricity bill through the subscription.

Also called shared solar, community solar happens when a developer builds a small solar farm on a parking lot, a farm field or other open space near your community. You then buy or subscribe to a share of the energy that array produces. Your utility, in metro Denver’s case, Xcel Energy, then credits your electricity bill for the amount of energy your share produced that month.

Community solar projects also have shares they can give away to disadvantaged community members or nonprofit organizations looking to save on their bills, employing some of the funds we all pay on our Xcel bills to support renewable energy development.

Colorado, alongside Minnesota, is one of the more active states supporting community solar growth. When renewable energy advocates feel Xcel Energy has lagged in making community solar easier, they’ve been successful in pressuring the big utility to allow more and expand low-income credits.

Solar United Neighbors has a handy guide to looking up community solar projects in your area, whether they are taking more subscriptions or have waitlists, and whether they have a low-income option.

Strength in numbers

The group route is a reassuring way to go, even if you end up funding and installing your own system on your roof. Solar United Neighbors said 2023 was a “record-setting year” for the nonprofit. A Boulder County group project covered 140 installations for 400 members, and built 1MW of solar capacity, Simeon-Cox said.

In metro Denver, Solar United Neighbors’ membership has gone from 400 members to 3,500 members.

“There are always options for you to explore if you want to look into it more,” he said. “But it can just be sort of time consuming to do on your own.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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