Group pushes for Utah County community solar program

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16 2013 8:00 a.m. MST

Sara Baldwin, with Utah Clean Energy, stands with mayors of Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Midvale, Park City and West Valley City, representing the Wasatch Solar Challenge Team, formally launch efforts to lower the cost and simplify the process for residential and commercial solar energy projects April 10, 2012, in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

PROVO — A Utah County environmental group wants to shine a light on the benefits of going solar and ways to make it more financially appealing through the implementation of a communitywide solar program.

An exploratory meeting to discuss the effort is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday in Room 201 of the Provo City Library, 550 N. University Ave.

Hosted by the Utah Valley Earth Forum, with presentations by Gardner Engineering and Clifton Consulting, the free event will highlight information about bulk purchasing discounts, ways homeowners or businesses can tap into solar, and where successful and similar efforts have played out.

James Westover, forum chairman, said he'd like cities, residents, businesses and institutions to consider modeling a program after Salt Lake Community Solar in which dozens of households installed 232 kilowatts of solar energy on their roofs.

The Utah Clean Energy project launched last year saved homeowners an average of 40 percent on solar systems via a bulk purchase. Collectively, the project will generate enough electricity to avoid 627,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions — the equivalent of planting 7,000 trees or taking 56 cars off the road, according to Utah Clean Energy.

Gardner Engineering was the contractor on the project, selected by a volunteer steering committee to carry out the mechanics of solar system design and installation.

Westover believes a similar community effort could prove successful in Utah County, and to everyone's benefit. "We'd like to incentivize the movement away from burning harmful fossil fuels for power generation," he said.

Utah Clean Energy said the interest in Salt Lake Community Solar demonstrated to them that people are hungry for solar power and there exists a pent-up demand.

But too often, Westover said, residents don't know where to turn for the expertise for solar installation,g  or they experience roadblocks via government fees that can quickly deter interest.

Sara Baldwin, who led the Salt Lake Community Solar initiative, said as solar power increasingly becomes a more attractive alternative to homeowners and business operators, cities can work to streamline costs and be ahead of the curve, rather than scrambling to catch up.

"The hard costs of solar, the hardware, are relatively static. But it is what we call the soft costs — permitting — which are different in every local government jurisdiction, different from utility to utility and from county to county," she said.

Baldwin, Utah Clean Energy's senior policy and regulatory associate, said representatives from six local governments participating in the Wasatch Solar Challenge will meet in February to determine how streamlined those "soft costs" have become and where there is room for improvement.

She added that she is pleased a Utah County group is interested in promoting a similar, communitywide solar effort.

"Our whole purpose in piloting that effort in Salt Lake County was to prove it could be done, and prove it could be done well," she said.

Westover said moving toward renewable energy makes sense — economically, environmentally and ethically.

"Fossil fuels are erroneously believed to be the cheapest source of power, and I'd say erroneously based on the true costs not being factored in — such as all the costs to the environment and public health," Westover said. "The cost is paid for by people who suffer from lung-related illnesses. … It is time for us to become responsible for our actions and behave in a responsible and respectful way."

Rocky Mountain Power also recently announced that Utah customers can apply to receive cash incentives to help offset the cost of installing solar energy equipment at their home or business.

Program participants who sign up now through Jan. 28 will be chosen randomly through a lottery each year through 2017. The incentives are part of Rocky Mountain Power's expanded Utah Solar Incentive Program, which is designed to provide an estimated $50 million in incentives over the next five years.

More information is available at rockymountainpower.net/solar.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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