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SEI launches solar advising program for rural communities

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Solar Energy International (SEI), an industry leader in solar energy technical training, kicked off its newest program, Solar Forward, through a partnership with the Coldharbour Institute in Gunnison County.

The Solar Forward program gives nonprofits or community groups in rural Colorado communities the opportunity to partner with SEI to implement initiatives aimed at kickstarting solar markets in a region. Nonprofits can apply to be accepted into the program, and upon entry they receive a toolkit for desired solar growth initiatives chosen from a menu of offerings from SEI, and a year of advising from an SEI technical adviser.

Some of these offerings include a toolkit to launch a "Solarize" program, which is a community-driven group purchase program including partnered local installers and an incentivized timeline to go solar, and SEI's "Solar in Schools" program which brings SEI's industry-leading solar curriculum to high schools as a trade training program.

Coldharbour Institute (CI) plans to use Solar Forward's toolkit and assistance to launch a Solarize program aimed at increasing residential and commercial solar in the region. Participating communities include Gunnison, Crested Butte, Mount Crested Butte and Crested Butte South in Gunnison County, and Lake City in Hinsdale County.

CI resulted from the 2015 merger of Coldharbour Sustainable Living Center and the Office of Resource Efficiency. That year Coldharbour began a relationship with the master of environmental management program at Western State Colorado University that has developed into a hub of different projects and programs, with the Solarize program being the newest. CI's mission is to facilitate education, incubation, and demonstration of regenerative personal, community and land practices.

"There are many in the Gunnison Valley that would like to see solar utilized more, and this program is the perfect catalyst," said Hunter Edberg, Gunnison County's solar program coordinator and CI representative. "Adding solar capacity for residents, schools, and businesses will have a great impact on local economic development, reduce our region's carbon footprint, and make our local power grid more resilient. The addition of solar on a small scale could also be very useful to leverage the support needed for utility scale solar in the valley as well."

SEI's experience with solar initiatives in rural communities stems back to its three years of implementing "Economic Revitalization Through Solar" programs in Delta County, with the help of AmeriCorps VISTAs. Through their efforts, Delta County saw over 400 new kilowatts of installed solar (Gunnison County currently has approximately 415 kW), and a partnership with the local rural electric cooperative, Delta Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), that resulted in DMEA pledging $150,000 of unused capital credits to install five 10-kW solar systems on area high schools.

"We are thrilled to partner with Coldharbour Institute to bring more solar to Gunnison County," Solar Forward program manager Mary Marshall said.

"What makes the Solar Forward program unique is that we offer a holistic approach to communities drafting their distributed energy strategies for the future," Marshall explained. "We provide assistance on initiatives that encourage the growth of rooftop residential solar to commercially-focused outreach, and even solar energy education for future generations. Especially now, when there is so much emphasis on going 100-percent renewable, rural communities who benefit the most from the economic diversification and energy resilience that a solar market brings have the potential to lead the way into the future."

Marshall also emphasized that the program seeks to empower rural community groups to be the primary driver for these programs in their own communities, with SEI providing assistance and support when needed. "Community groups have the ability to engage community partners and network in the region that they call home in a way that resonates the most with rural communities," said Marshall.

The Solar Forward program was born out of a prevalent problem in Western Colorado, and nationwide: As communities transition from coal-dependent economies, there is a need now more than ever to diversify local economies and build sustainable solutions for the future. Solar creates new local jobs, and locally-produced energy helps keep money in the communities that need it the most.

For more information, contact Marshall at mary@solarenergy.org or call 970-527-7657 extension 116.

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