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Paonia project launches Solarize Delta County

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Photo by Tamie Meck From left, Paonia High School principal Randal Palmer, junior Tim Helmer, the Paonia Eagles mascot (Cameron Van Vleet) and Pete Mueller with Solar Energy International break ground last Friday on a 10-kilowatt solar system to be instal

That it was a blustery day with overcast skies didn't overshadow the spirits of those attending last Friday's groundbreaking of a solar array installation at Paonia High School. If anything, it made the event more memorable.

"We are here today to celebrate a partnership between Solar Energy International and the Delta County School District to create new learning opportunities for our area youth," said Gerald Espinosa, an AmeriCorps VISTA member with SEI. "The groundbreaking ceremony is a culmination of that collaborative work."

The 10-kilowatt system was built by PHS students enrolled in PV101, a basic photovoltaic system class offered by SEI. The system is designed to last a minimum of 25 years and save PHS an estimated $1,500 annually in energy costs. The installation, said Espinosa, will be an enduring legacy to the students who helped build it, and an educational tool for future students.

SEI and the Delta County School District partnered to launch the solar energy training program last fall. The goal was to give students a fundamental understanding of the technical concepts and skills needed for entry-level solar energy employment, said Espinosa. Students who took the course plan to pursue degrees in engineering, physics and other Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM-related fields.

The timing is right, said Espinosa. Today, one in 80 jobs created is related to the solar energy industry.

PHS principal Randal Palmer praised the program for both its educational benefits. "These students will be able to put on their college applications that they have worked on the creation and installation of a solar array," said Palmer. "And that's going to bring them to the top."

Since establishing itself as an educational nonprofit 25 years ago, SEI has provided technical training in renewable energy to 45,000 students around the world, said Espinosa. SEI currently trains 5,000 students a year.

PHS junior Tim Helmer was among the 13 students enrolled in the PV101 class, and is now serving an internship at SEI. "The solar industry has so much room to grow," said Helmer. "I feel that it has such potential that more people should explore it. Even if they don't end up going into it, they should know something about it."

This winter the PV101 class was expanded to Delta High School. "I think this partnership with SEI speaks to the district's efforts to engage the larger community" to ensure local students possess 21st century job skills, said SEI executive director Kathy Schwartz.

The event also marked the launch of Solarize Delta County, a partnership project with Delta County Economic Development and other entities to provide solar opportunities throughout the county. Schwartz said the Solarize program grew out of a challenge from the SEI board of directors for SEI to have a greater economic impact on the community. In 2015, Solarize North Fork resulted in about $400,000 in investments and 23 solar energy projects equivalent to 120 kilowatts of solar power.

Delta-Montrose Electric Association board member John Gavan said DMEA was honored to have been a contributor to the program. "Paonia is fortunate to have SEI in the community," said Gavan. It not only contributes to the local economy, "but SEI is known nationally and internationally as the one place to go for solar energy training."

DMEA recognizes the importance of local renewable energy generation to the area's future and the economy, said Gavan. About 5 percent of DMEA's power comes from renewable sources. Today, solar power is being generated at a price just slightly above a central station power plant and will be at grid parity within five to 10 years. "It's very important to do all we can to prepare our young people for this incredible industry." In 10 to 20 years, said Gavan, solar could be the biggest industry on the planet.

Jeff Tobe with Empowered Energy Systems in Hotchkiss did the installations for the program and is donating its time and expertise to the installation at PHS. Tobe, an installer for the Solarize program, said that in 2015, the company broke its own record for the number of systems and amount of capacity installed and was able to hire additional staff. "We're excited to hopefully grow the program this year," said Tobe. "And we're excited that it's expanding out to all of Delta County."

Tobe said federal tax credits are still available, and there is an early-bird signup incentive. The program also offers rebates for installations based on the capacity of the installation.

In thanking all of those who helped make the project happen, Espinosa said the 10 modules for the system will be donated by SunEdison, in partnership with The Solar Foundation. Several Solarize participants generously donated their rebates back to the project, and DCSD facilities director John McHugh is helping with installation.

Espinosa gave special thanks to the Cocker Kids Foundation. "They were our biggest financial donor," said Espinosa. "Cocker Kids Foundation did an outstanding job."

For Helmer, the class and resulting internship have opened many doors, including a possible summer job opportunity with SEI. If he does work with SEI, he said he will be working with Empowered Energy Systems on installations for Solarize Delta County.

The Delta launch event for Solarize Delta County will happen from 4-6 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, at the DCED office in Delta.

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