Solar nonprofits join forces to help a rural Colorado county

By Ben Delman on February 18, 2022

There are two nonprofit solar group buy-in programs in Colorado, Solar Forward and Solar United Neighbors (SUN), and when San Miguel County wanted to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and spur economic development, they reached out to both organizations.

“San Miguel County has a longstanding goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning the energy consumption within the county to renewables wherever possible. We are excited to partner with Solar Forward and SUN to provide residents and businesses across the entire county with the chance to more affordably install solar on their homes,” shared Sheamus Croke, the COVID-19 Recovery Funding Coordinator for the County.

Solar Forward is an outreach program from Solar Energy International (SEI), an educational non-profit based in Paonia, Colorado. SEI empowers students, alumni, and partners to expand a diverse, inclusive, well-trained and educated solar electricity workforce. SEI’s Solar Forward program promotes this work in rural communities through education, workforce training, and assisting communities to implement solar group buy-in programs. Program Manager Ellen Ross brings Solar Forward’s tools for outreach and education to the San Miguel community by working with the sustainability non-profit, EcoAction Partners.

“I am always eager to work with a dedicated sustainability organization like EcoAction, because they are already tied in with so many stakeholders and promoting holistic measures for greenhouse gas mitigation like energy efficiency.” said Ellen Ross, “And getting to pair Solar Forward’s educational efforts with SUN’s group buy-in model, means that the San Miguel community is getting a multifaceted, dynamic solar campaign.”

Solar United Neighbors (SUN) has been working in Colorado since 2019 to help communities go solar together and leverage their group buying power as a solar co-op. SUN solar co-ops are free to join and once the group is large enough, it will solicit bids from area solar installers. A selection committee reviews each bid and selects the one that best serves the needs of the group. The chosen installer will then develop a personalized proposal for each member based on that bid price. Members review their bid and decide individually if they want to move forward with an installation. Streamlining the process of going solar helps customers feel confident in their decision to purchase renewable energy for their home.

“At Solar United Neighbors, we seek to educate and empower communities in the process of going solar. Rural communities present unique circumstances and it’s important to us that they receive information and opportunities that will help inform their journey to going solar. We envision a clean, equitable energy system that directs control and benefits back to local communities, with solar on every roof and money in every pocket.” shared Sarah Solomon, of Solar United Neighbors.

SUN had a successful 2021 solar co-op with the Town of Mountain Village in San Miguel County, resulting in 15 new solar installations and 72kW of clean, distributed generation for those homes. Hot on the heels of that first successful solar co-op the Town of Mountain Village saw the potential to help more homeowners benefit from the economics of a group buy-in program. SUN and Mountain Village were able to pilot a rebate for deed-restricted housing, making $5,000 available for each of those nine deed-restricted households which may not have been able to access solar otherwise. The second solar co-op, underway, will offer the same rebate for deed-restricted households in Mountain Village.

Rebates are also available for this current round, see the Uncompahgre Solar Co-op website for more details. The co-op is actively signing up members with no obligation to go solar, but an invitation to receive a free quote while SUN facilitates a headache-free solar buying process. Solar Forward, meanwhile, is planning education and outreach events around the county to ensure that everyone: children, agricultural producers, residents and businesses, English language learners, and diverse backgrounds in the county are included in the conversation about energy and efficiency.