Collective sees bright future for solar

BOULDER – Clean Energy Collective LLC, buoyed by state renewable-energy mandates, is building solar arrays all over the Front Range and nationwide as it profits from its unique community solar garden business model.

Carbondale-based Clean Energy Collective employs 71 people, with 35 in Boulder, 30 in Broomfield and a half dozen others working remotely. Last month, it started two new arrays in Golden for customers of Xcel Energy Inc. (NYSE: XEL). The company will have seven projects on the Front Range after the two arrays are completed.

The company also plans additional arrays for Fort Collins Utilities at the former Dreher pickle factory at 500 Riverside Ave. in Fort Collins, and for the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association on North Whitcomb Street near Terry Lake north of Fort Collins in Larimer County.

Founded in 2010 by chief executive Paul Spencer, Clean Energy Collective is owned by its employees as well as a handful of private-equity investors. The company adopted its community solar business model when it built its first projects on the Western Slope. Since then, it has built or is developing 40 projects nationwide with 18 utilities in eight states for a total of 26 megawatts of community solar capacity.

Spurred by the Colorado Community Solar Gardens Act, the company has seen rapid growth and expects additional progress as other states pass similar legislation, said Chief Operating Officer Tom Sweeney, who joined Clean Energy Collective in 2012 when the company employed seven people.

“We’ve been a participant in the legislative process across a number of states,” Sweeney said.

Established in 2010, the Community Solar Gardens Act authorized development of community solar arrays in the state and set standards for them.

In Northern Colorado, Poudre Valley REA aims to buy power from Clean Energy Collective’s new solar array to be built in Larimer County. The 500,000-watt array will contain 2,000 solar panels.

Poudre Valley REA built Northern Colorado’s first community solar array in 2012 and plans to break ground on the second array this summer.

Poudre Valley REA spokeswoman Amy Holmquist said the rural electric distribution cooperative had little solar experience, so Clean Energy Collective has helped the utility with the important details of the arrays.

“We purchase the power from the solar arrays, and they are responsible for maintaining it, things our linemen don’t know how to do with solar panels,” she said. “It also creates a way for any of our members to invest.”

The ability for individual customers – including businesses, local governments and residents – to buy solar panels in the community solar gardens it builds has drawn utilities to Clean Energy Collective. Utility customers buy individual panels in the community solar gardens for a few hundred dollars apiece, and utilities then credit customers for electricity generated by the panels. The credit to customers is similar to the amount they would receive if they owned a rooftop solar array, so customers see savings on their utility bills.

Clean Energy Collective funds the solar projects built by contractors it hires. Its profits come from customers buying panels at higher prices than the company spends building the arrays. The solar panels can last 20 to 35 years, but Clean Energy Collective maintains an operations and maintenance trust account funded by initial sales proceeds and ongoing contributions from electricity production to replace older panels and other equipment.

Utilities such as Xcel are interested because they must meet a state mandate to generate 30 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2020. Similarly, rural electric utilities must provide 20 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2020.

Utilities also have responded to demands from customers to offer more renewable energy, Sweeney said. Some live in apartment buildings while others have roofs that face the wrong direction and cannot optimally capture the sun’s rays. Other people do not want to make the investment of installing an entire array.  

“There is large group of ratepayers or utility customers who are interested in using renewable energy or being able to have renewable energy supplied to them, but they can’t put solar panels on their roof – or they don’t own a roof,” Sweeney said.

Christine Beadle, solar analyst for NPD SolarBuzz in California, has followed Clean Energy Collective since it was established. She pointed to the Clean Energy Collective’s 50-year warranty program that pays for repairs and replacements of solar panels and other equipment as a major factor that differentiates the company from others.

“Clean Energy Collective set up a model that works for a very long time,” she said. “They also thought about everything that could go wrong, everything that people wanted.”

“They have adjusted that over time as they’ve moved on and moved into different places,” she added. “It’s been amazingly successful.”

Steve Lynn can be reached at 970-232-3147, 303-630-1968 or slynn@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveLynnBW.

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