New solar garden providing savings to Ponderosa Mobile Home Park residents

A first-of-its-kind solar garden is set to save Ponderosa Mobile Home Park residents money on their energy bills.

There are other solar gardens that dedicate a portion of the kilowattage to lower-income households. However, this particular facility, owned by Boulder and located near the Boulder County Regional Fire Training Center at the Boulder Reservoir, is the first municipally owned garden in the nation to designate the entire capacity for low-income participants — as far as those involved know.

This City of Boulder-owned solar garden is near the Boulder Reservoir Fire Training Center. This solar garden, meant for residents at Ponderosa Mobile Home Park, is the first city-owned solar garden meant for low-income people in the country. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

“It’s something we hope to set as a model and to continue to do and develop,” Boulder’s Senior Energy Project Manager Yael Gichon said.

The idea has been a long time coming, and Gichon attributes its success to a bit of synchronicity.

“There was a growing interest in the city in solar gardens and being able to develop solar gardens ourselves to make sure that we were able to provide access to solar energy to people who might not otherwise have access,” she said.

It also timed out well with Boulder’s purchase of the Ponderosa manufactured home community in 2017. The city replaced the old sewer, water and electric infrastructure and added new fire hydrants, paved streets and sidewalks and new stormwater management. In the city’s view, lower energy bills will provide stability for the people who live there.

While Boulder encourages renewable energy adoption as a means of lowering emissions and reducing climate impact, there are barriers to access for many.

“To be honest, the biggest barrier is cost,” said Matt McNearney, director of strategic development with GRID Alternatives. “Solar can be expensive.”

GRID is the nonprofit organization that helped install the 100-kilowatt solar garden, and McNearney and the organization have worked with Ponderosa residents to help everyone sign up.

Further, some people are in homes — such as mobile homes — that are not suitable for solar installation. Others may have older roofs that aren’t ideal or roofs that aren’t in the proper orientation toward the sun. They may rent the home or live in a complex where they have no say.

In addition to the high cost of living in Boulder, many residents face unsustainably high energy costs and are “energy burdened.” Someone’s energy burden is defined by the federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as the percentage of the gross household income spent on energy costs.

According to the city, more than 100 households in Boulder spend at least 14% of their income on their energy needs.

The solar garden is expected to save Ponderosa residents about $400 annually. Some may see more savings; some may see less. It’s dependent on how much energy the particular household uses, McNearney noted.

Ponderosa residents, however, have yet to see any savings due a glitch in Xcel’s system, he said.

“The customers will receive their full credits, but those won’t be reflected on their statements until the next billing cycle,” McNearney said.

While solar energy can provide a significant energy cost savings, it largely serves people who are better positioned to handle the upfront costs of installation, said Carolyn Elam, who works as the energy manager in Boulder’s climate initiatives department.

“We need to bring equity to electricity and utility services,” she said.

Boulder’s Energy Impact Offset Fund provided funding for the project. The fund serves as a way for the city to reduce the cannabis industry’s carbon footprint through regulations that require local cannabis businesses to track, report and offset 100% of their electricity use. Businesses can achieve the offset requirement by installing solar on site, subscribing to a verified local solar garden or purchasing offsets through the Energy Impact Offset Fund, according to information from the city.

“Our Council, back when they imposed the regulations on the marijuana industry, really wanted that new industry and its impact on the community to not negatively affect our role in climate change,” Elam said.

Once the project is in full swing, the city will reevaluate. If there’s more capacity than needed for Ponderosa, Gichon said it would work with organizations such as Boulder Housing Partners to identify other low-income residents who might be interested in participating.

“It’s small, and we need to do a lot more,” Elam said of this particular project. “We’re committed to doing more.”

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