The Roaring Fork Valley is on the verge of a solar revolution in clean, affordable energy through free market innovation and utility cooperation. The target market is anyone willing to invest long term for personal and societal benefits.
On the market side is Paul Spencer, the driving force behind the Clean Energy Collective. CEC is installing large arrays of solar electric panels in which consumers can become owners and offset energy needs in their homes and businesses. Spencer is building solar collectives with cooperation from Holy Cross Energy, the largest electric utility in the valley. Together they have devised an innovative metering system that credits solar energy against a customer's Holy Cross bills.
"Paul's solar farms are more like community gardens," says energy expert Randy Udall of Carbondale. "It's not on your rooftop, as bragging rights, but as a form of shared community and cooperation. This valley is arguably the leading hotbed for solar photovoltaics in the entire Rocky Mountain region. Holy Cross doesn't brag on what they're doing, but they are kicking ass."
Spencer, 39, grew up in this valley. He went through the Basalt school system and earned a degree in electrical engineering at CU. "I knew I had to leave this valley to be able to afford to live here," he said of a lucrative software career that took him to Atlanta and eventually allowed him and his wife to move back, build an off-the-grid home on East Sopris Creek, and start a grassroots energy company.
Spencer's home is powered, in part, by photovoltaic panels, which convinced him that solar works here. He speculates that expanding to scale makes sense for the Roaring Fork community because of a valleywide commitment to reducing carbon output and increasing energy efficiency.
Spencer has partnered with midvalley developer Ace Lane to form Easy Clean Energy, a start-up that provides sustainable energy applications with solar, wind, hydro, and biomass. Lane has employed Spencer to help make his proposed El Jebel Tree Farm development green, in part by providing land for the installation of an 80-kilowatt solar array that will be built and managed by CEC.
Spencer says that providing clean, renewable energy to one home is good and that powering an entire neighborhood is great, but that powering an entire region is his ultimate goal. "I've made a living over the years," reflects Spencer, "doing what I'm passionate about, and always being on the cutting edge. I want to build a vehicle here that could be taken to scale and drive enormous energy adoption."
Since there is no existing model for what Spencer is creating, he has invested heavily in solar technology, remote metering, innovative billing, and tax credits. Spencer's agenda has reached the national level through a bill - the Sun Act of 2010 - which Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo) supports. "One of my goals is to eliminate every barrier to green energy," pledges Spencer.
The success of selling solar kilowatts to offset carbon-based kilowatts rests on the long-term low cost of solar energy, so that going solar doesn't mean having to be rich. Spencer's goal is to provide communities with zero-emission energy so that "it's no longer a luxury to be green."
Customers may buy-in for as little as a couple hundred dollars and gradually increase their stakes toward long-term energy savings, all while cutting carbon emissions. "We are turning solar into a very good investment," affirms Spencer. "It provides a better return today than a bond or a CD."
In addition to its solar array in El Jebel, CEC has plans for installations in Snowmass, and in Garfield and Eagle counties. The proposed array at the Eagle County landfill near Dotsero will cover seven acres with 8,000 panels, making it one of the largest arrays in Colorado. On this scale, Spencer can lead a solar energy revolution for clean communities wherever the sun shines.