Solarize project installs 22 systems in the North Fork

By Gerald Espinosa


Solarize project installs 22 systems in the North Fork | Paonia, energy

Photo courtesy Laura Palmisano, KVNF The first Solarize North Fork Valley install on Stewart Mesa Road, showing racking and copper wire, with Mount Lamborn in the background.

Solar Energy International (SEI) is proud to announce that the round of Solarize North Fork Valley resulted in over $400,000 in local investment through the installation of 120 kilowatts of solar in 22 new systems. For our tiny community of Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia, this is significant and only the beginning.

Solarize North Fork Valley was created to help stimulate the local community where SEI's headquarters is based. This program began as local coal mines began to close and lay off hundreds of local folks. "SEI is located in a community that once mined over 1.5 percent of the nation's coal. As our coal mines closed and local families were being forced to leave to find jobs, our community began to suffer. As an organization, we asked ourselves, 'What can we do to drive economic development through solar?' " stated Kathryn Swartz, SEI's executive director.

With the support of our Americorps VISTAs, Kristen O'Brien and Pete Mueller, Solarize North Fork Valley was launched. After an extensive RFP process, Empowered Energy Systems, in partnership with Sunsense Solar, was selected as the official installer. During Solarize North Fork Valley's three-month enrollment, 14 educational sessions were held with over 164 residents of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford participating. These educational events explained not just how solar works, but how the Solarize model could help save on the price of the system.

This first round of Solarize North Fork Valley resulted in the creation of three new, good-paying local solar jobs. "I'm the busiest I have ever been in my life, even when I was farming," commented Empowered Energy System's owner and SEI alumni, Brad Burritt.

Solarize North Fork Valley was created to drive economic development and jobs, and to ensure that our young people had opportunities for meaningful employment. SEI partnered with the Delta County School District to launch an Introduction to Photovoltaics course at Paonia High School. The class introduces students to renewable energy and solar installation practices. Thirteen juniors and seniors will graduate from this program later this month.

Solarize North Fork Valley is part of a much bigger vision. "Our communities have been energy producers for over 100 years. As the energy market changes in response to climate change and a diminishing nonrenewable resource, there is an incredible opportunity in western Colorado to develop one of the region's greatest resources -- its solar resource. When you combine this with our skilled local workforce, you begin to see how much of a game-changer renewable energy truly can be for our communities," Swartz stated.

"SEI's vision statement is a world powered by renewable energy, and we can use our community as a model of this vision. Our ultimate goal is 120 megawatts of local renewable energy. It's an ambitious goal but yet achievable because we live in a community that has fantastic solar, coal mine methane, biogas and hydro resources. This would not be possible without our progressive local rural electric coop, Delta-Montrose Electric Association."

In a recent ruling, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) cleared the way for Colorado's Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), along with other electric co-ops, to step outside the bounds of a 40-year power supply contract with Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association and tap into local renewable energy supplies. With the ruling, FERC opened the door for DMEA and other co-op members to tap into cost-competitive renewable energy resources right in their backyards.

SEI is working collaboratively with local organizations in the development of large utility-scale solar, in addition to expanding its residential and small commercial PV program. Under the leadership of Gerald Espinosa, SEI's Americorps VISTA, SEI is actively planning for the next round of Solarize, which will begin in early 2016 and will include low-interest financing and a community solar garden. "Many of our neighbors are still prohibited from going solar, particularly low and fixed income populations," stated Espinosa. "With green loan programs and the potential of a community solar garden, we can really make clean energy cost-effective and accessible to more in our community."

The journey to power our community with renewable energy continues. Be sure to tune back in early 2016 to learn more about how Solarize round II is working to make solar more accessible and affordable for our neighbors in the valley.