For fossil fuel-reliant towns, a solar alternative grows

A rural solar movement is growing, which focuses on local resilience.

 

During his final semester at Delta High School, on Colorado’s Western Slope, Zac Carter enrolled in a new course called Introduction to Photovoltaics, where he could learn the basics of the solar industry. Some of Carter’s family works in the energy industry, and he’s always been interested in electricity. This year, though, he’s watched close family friends struggle to find jobs after being laid off by the nearby West Elk coal mine. By the time he turned 18, he knew a future in fossil fuels wasn’t viable. 

After passing the course, Carter was eligible for an entry-level job as a solar panel installer. He quit his job at McDonald’s after graduation and enrolled in two more classes at Solar Energy International (SEI). A month later, he landed a job with a company in Montrose installing rooftop solar systems, making $12 to $15 an hour. “I was the only one in my class to pursue it as a career,” he said. “The industry is growing fast here. I feel like I have a leg up.”

A photovoltaic training course at Solar Energy International in Paonia, Colorado.
SEI

Stricter environmental regulations and low natural gas prices have made it difficult for coal companies to stay in business. On the Western Slope, where three major mining operations have closed in recent years, SEI has worked with the local energy cooperative, Delta Montrose Electric Association, to spur economic development through renewable energy. The program has allowed Delta County to diversify energy sources, and has become a tool for economic revitalization. Carter, who wants to stay in Delta and work his way up the ladder of the local solar industry, is just the type of person they’re trying to reach.

The U.S. is home to over 900 electric cooperatives, which buy wholesale power from a generation and transmission company and distribute it to members. Delta’s is among the more progressive, constantly pushing for local renewable energy solutions. The co-op, which distributes electricity to 32,000 service locations in Delta and Montrose Counties on the Western Slope of Colorado, purchases 95 percent of its electricity from Tri-State Generation and Transmission in Denver, and produces the remaining 5 percent from hydroelectric plants and community solar arrays. For years, the co-op has been fighting Tri-State for more energy independence. Last year, Tri-State attempted to impose a fee on wholesale electricity customers like DMEA, so the cooperative petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and won the right to keep developing local energy solutions and buy electricity outside of Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association.

Still, about $42 million annually leaves Delta County to go to Tri-State in Denver. That’s why DMEA is working to create more jobs through renewable energy. In the last year, they have hired locally for construction, operation, and maintenance of hydropower, biomass, and coal methane plants. And with the help of SEI’s resources, DMEA is also rapidly growing a market for solar on the Western Slope. The country's largest nonprofit renewable energy lab facility and training school, SEI is based in Paonia, the town of about 1,500 people where High Country News is headquartered. The institute offers online and hands-on courses for designing, installing, and maintaining solar PV systems. About 50,000 students have graduated from the program, and SEI brings hundreds of people through Paonia every year for hands-on training at its industry-recognized renewable energy training campus. 

In 2015, SEI created the Solarize North Fork Valley campaign in response to the closing of the local coal mines. The goals of the program were to create a solar market, which would result economic development and create jobs. SEI reached out to unemployed coal miners and oil and gas workers, but the market for solar wasn’t quite ready yet, and many coal miners were more reluctant than SEI expected, often concerned about job security. So SEI changed course to focus on developing awareness about solar in Delta County. “The last thing I want to do is tell people there’s a job when there’s not yet,” says Kathy Swartz, director of SEI. “We want to start with the development of solar market in Delta County, [and then] start prepping the future workforce.”

Installations began in July 2015, and by the end of the year the program contracted 23 new projects, mostly on residential rooftops, with 150 kilowatts of solar capacity — or $400,000 of solar business — tied to the grid and distributed through DMEA. So far, about five former oil and gas or coal workers have participated in trainings. The push was so successful that Delta County Economic Development Inc., a nonprofit that works with the public and private sector to develop economic opportunities in the region, asked SEI to expand to the entire county. “The Solarize campaign addresses the economic feasibility challenge,” says Virginia Harman, DMEA’s vice president of member relations. “By aggregating individuals' purchases together… material prices for solar photovoltaic systems helps lower the installed costs to the consumer.”

There are still huge hurdles to increasing solar capacity, even if the market is growing rapidly. In particular, rooftop solar systems are expensive: The average cost for a full home installation is around $15,000, a prohibitive cost for many rural homeowners. As a result, next year SEI will focus its efforts on commercial and utility-scale solar, specifically through Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (CPACE), a program that helps commercial and industrial property owners access affordable financing for long-term solar projects. But all these projects are just a drop in the bucket. Solar still has a long way to go on the Western Slope, and counts for very little of DMEA’s 5 percent renewable energy generation. 

The Solarize initiative is only one component of SEI’s economic development campaign. The institute has several other programs to help people pursue careers in the solar industry, create local jobs, and keep money generated through energy projects in the county. Swartz is heading a program at SEI to teach women-only courses, while the Solar in Schools Outreach Program offers presentations for elementary and middle school students, and allows high schools students like Carter to prepare for entry-level solar jobs.

There’s also the Active Duty Military and Veterans Career Transition Program, which pays for certain training and certificate programs for veterans. Among its adherents is Noel Wichmann, who lives in Hotchkiss, retired from the Air Force and worked in hard rock mining for years before he learned about the GI Bill-funded program. Wichmann decided to expand his greenhouse-building business, Juneau Solutions, by learning to install off-grid solar systems on farms in the area. He earned a certificate in battery-based and residential/commercial solar this summer, and has enough work on the Western Slope to keep him busy full-time.

Colorado’s Western Slope isn’t the only place where rural energy co-ops are paving the way for local renewable energy and economic development. In New Mexico, a network of electric cooperatives has been working for decades to keep money and energy production in their communities. One of those is Springer Electric Cooperative, which serves several rural northern New Mexico communities including Cimarron, Maxwell, Roy, Mosquero and Folsom. Although its main power sources are coal, natural gas, and hydropower, Springer recently finished building a one-megawatt solar field, and is now in the process of building two more.

“We’re looking at a comprehensive view of sustainability, and energy is one piece of that,” says David Spradlin, the CEI of Springer. His hope is to build enough solar fields and other renewable energy plants that Springer can hire maintenance crews to create more jobs — and eventually bring in companies that want to run on renewable energy. In Northern New Mexico and the Western Slope of Colorado, the solar movement inches a bit further every year. 

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.