By Tor ‘Solar Fred’ Valenza
January 6, 2012 | 4 Comments

Boulder, Colorado has been on my solar radar for a number of years. It’s one of the cities that I covered in 2009 when part of my job was tracking solar rebates. They were generous then—around $3/watt… less so now. But those generous rebates and other factors have created a beautiful and inspiring solar community, although it’s not a perfect solar world.

The last time I was in Boulder was about 20 years ago. Since then, it has grown from a progressive University and renewable energy research town (NREL is there) to an upscale, progressive, outdoorsy Denver suburb and bedroom community of about 100,000 people. For those in the San Francisco Bay area, think Burlingame with snow and lots of visible solar roofs.

Beyond the solar visibility, the town is just flat-out eco-friendly. There are bike lanes everywhere here. Some are in the roads and other paths are hidden behind homes in a tree-lined bike alley system which was made by an organization where you can Plant trees online. Although I arrived just after a December snowstorm, I continued to see Boulderites using those bike lanes, and as the snow melted, their numbers increased. (I’m told that the warmer months are especially filled with local bike commuters.)

Boulder’s commitment to the bicycle lifestyle despite potentially harsh weather is reflective of its commitment to solar and renewable energy. Yes, there’s snow, but that hasn’t dampened residential solar too much, though I do have one solar friend who wishes someone would create a device that could cost effectively remove snow-covered panels more automatically.

Beyond its residents, the City of Boulder has committed to 1.7 megawatts of solar, and their installs are very public. They can be seen on recreation centers and even on a huge municipal building on Boulder’s main shopping district, Pearl St. Here’s a shot of the public recreation center with rows and rows of solar thermal collectors.

The city’s installs are a great symbol of green energy commitment, but that wasn’t enough for Boulder residents. Though you have to credit Xcel’s initially generous rebates for part of Boulder’s solar boom, some residents thought the investor owned utility became half-hearted once they approached Colorado’s mandated RPS quotas. Many saw Xcel starting to get in the way of distributed solar (and growing solar jobs and businesses) through abruptly slashing rebates, attempting to limit net metering, or impose new solar interconnection fees.

Rather than constantly battle Xcel through the Public Utility Commission, petitions, and protests, Boulder residents recently voted to unplug Xcel and create their own municipal utility. Although residents were warned that their utility costs could rise as a result, Boulder citizens nevertheless decided to become energy independent with an emphasis on green power, though it wasn’t a unanimous decision. The new Boulder utility’s goal is to create an energy mix of 84 megawatts of natural gas with a mix of 40 megawatts or more of rooftop solar power, and about 55 megawatts of wind, thereby reducing the city’s coal power needs to zero.

I can’t tell you how common it was for me to see solar panels on so many homes. Many homes I saw had solar hot water panels as well as solar PV, despite solar thermal incentives being less. So, how did Boulder become such a robust solar town?

In some ways, Boulder’s rapid solar growth is a reflection of today’s solar PV consolidation. Initially generous incentives from Xcel, combined with a state RPS, and the introduction of the residential 30% Federal ITC inspired this already green-minded community to demand lots of solar.

New installation companies were born to meet the demand, and that competition drove prices down — way down. In 2009 — before modules prices hit their lows of today — it was not uncommon to see installed residential prices at around $5/watt, or even in the $4’s. Today, my solar friends tell me it’s still in that range.

That kind of lowest-priced competition was great for consumers, but not sustainable for new under capitalized solar businesses, and I’m told that several installers have closed their shops. Nevertheless, their installs remain.

From a marketing perspective, my solar friends tell me that neighbors greatly influenced each other. That is, once one house on the block went solar, neighbors became curious and got a quote for themselves, and then eventually installed their own, often with the same company.

It’s unclear whether Boulder’s success can be repeated in larger cities. This is by no means a formula, but in summary, here are the points that seem to have contributed to Boulder’s solar growth:

A green-minded community. Boulder’s citizens were already progressive and open to green energy. That’s not to say that less progressive communities aren’t also open to solar, but far more customer and community education is needed than for Boulder.
A green-minded state. States with a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) compel utilities to act. Clearly, Xcel responded to the letter of the law, providing generous rebates at first. However, their perceived reluctance to go beyond the law’s requirements made the majority of their citizens vote for their own utility. That’s very difficult for any community, especially larger cities. Nevertheless, Boulder made it possible. We’ll have to see how their green aspirations compare to the reality of owning and operating their very own green municipal utility.
Generous rebates and incentives. Studies have shown that solar has to make financial sense to be adopted. Cities may not need $3/watt rebates with the recent fall in solar module prices, but every incentive helps, and Boulder has a lot of them. For now, these subsidies are still needed for rapid solar growth and states, cities, and utilities need to support them as they did in Boulder.
A committed local government. Though libertarians may disagree, it’s a lot easier to change our energy habits when local governments lead by example. Not only does the city incentivize solar for its citizens, but Boulder has also installed solar for its own energy needs. In many ways, visible solar panels are advertisements by themselves. They make viewers curious and ask themselves if they can go solar too. Typically, the answer is yes, but these people might never asked that question without seeing the city’s example.
Competition that lowered prices. There’s no doubt that competition dramatically lowered prices compared to other states; however it wasn’t sustainable when rebates were abruptly reduced. The recent consolidation of installers has allowed the strongest companies to survive, and now it remains to be seen if these survivors can thrive in Boulder. There are still plenty of empty roofs, but prices must stay competitive, especially without the generous incentives.
Federal Incentives. Until 2016, even if Boulder’s local rebates diminish or disappear, Boulder and the rest of the U.S. will still have a 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit to offset the initial cost, as well as provide solar leasing companies a way to provide residents with a low up front cost option. Right now this is a must to keep solar growing in Colorado and elsewhere, especially now that 1603 Treasury Grant Program has expired. If PACE programs could get back on track, that couldn’t hurt either.
It really was inspiring to travel through Boulder and see so many solar roofs in such a concentrated area. There may be more solar installed here in Los Angeles, but the city is so spread out, it requires a sharp eye to catch a solar roof.

I’m sure there’s much more to learn about Boulder’s success and mistakes, so feel free to take a trip and see it for yourself. You’ll not only see a great solar community, but the food is first class and the complete strangers that I met were extremely friendly and helpful to a visiting and some times lost L.A. visitor.

Know of any other hot solar communities like Boulder? (Recently, blogger John Farreil cited Gainsville, Florida for its FiT program.) Please share in the comments section below and let us know what was behind the growth. I’m looking forward to seeing how other cities are UnThinking Solar.

Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” advises solar companies on marketing, communications, and public relations. Contact him through UnThink Solar or follow him on Twitter @SolarFred.

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