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A Push For Solar In Colorado's North Fork Valley

construction, North Fork Valley
Laura Palmisano

A few years ago, a grassroots program started in Portlandto encourage people to adopt solar power. That idea spread across the county and inspired similar initiatives like one in a rural community in western Colorado. 

A crew of six is working to install mounts for solar panels on a residential rooftop in Delta County. 

This home sits atop a mesa that overlooks the North Fork Valley. And, it’s the first to get a sun-powered system through a local pro-solar campaign.  

"Solarize North Fork Valley is a program that was put together by SEI that looks at how we can boost the local solar economy in an effort to create jobs in the industry here," said Kristen O’Brien, an AmeriCorps VISTA with Solar Energy International. 

The Paonia-based educational nonprofit is spearheading the initiative. 

solar inverter
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF
A solar inverter being installed under a home in Delta County, Colorado.

"I think the figure is in 2014, over 31,000 jobs were created in the solar industry nationally," said O’Brien. 

She said SEI hopes to bring some of that success to its local community, an area affected by the downturn in the coal industry.

How It Works

People who sign up get a free remote site assessment from SEI and an energy audit through the local electric cooperative.

O’Brien said the audit tells people how much energy they are using and ways to reduce that consumption.

"And, what the remote site assessment does is it looks at your electrical usage history, the space you have available on your roof and your budget for the project," she said. "And, we put that all together and are able to spit out a free estimate for you of how much solar you can fit on your roof, how much of your electrical usage it would offset, and around how much it would cost you."

O'Brien said after that process the next step is passing on a person’s information to a solar installer.

"Based on the amount of contracts that our installers are able to sign as a result of the leads that we provide them through the program they offer rebates to everyone who participates," she said. 

O’Brien said an average family in the U.S. would use a 4-6 kilowatt system.

The goal for Solarize North Fork Valley is to get 100 kilowatts of solar sold. 

"That’s [about] 25 new solar systems and 25 new homes in the valley that would be powered by renewables," she said.  

Bill Bishop, Sarah Bishop
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF
Bill Bishop and Sarah Bishop were the first to sign up for Solarize North Fork Valley. Mrs. Bishop is on SEI's board.

Bill Bishop and his wife Sarah, who’s on SEI’s board, were the first to sign up for the program and purchase a system.

"We had already been thinking about it for 10 years," said Bishop. "And, so when the cost was shown to us at the SEI meeting we just said 'oh, we can do that'."

The Bishops plan on taking advantage of a 30 percent federal tax credit for solar and the rebate offered through the program.

"We will pay off the investment in about 12 years," he said. "About 70 percent of our electric will be taken care of by the solar system."

Jeff Tobe is with Empowered Energy Systems, a locally-based solar installer. The company he works for got the contract for the Bishop’s house through the Solarize program.

"It’s created a real boost in the interest for solar in the valley," said Tobe. "I mean that is very evident. I think it’s also increasing the amount of installations that we are going to do this year by quite a bit. I wouldn’t be surprised if we double the amount of installations."  

cooper wire, construction
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF
Copper wire being installed on a rooftop solar system in Delta County, Colorado.

Empowered Energy also hired four workers to help with jobs it landed through the initiative. 

O’Brien said she’s inspired by another Solarize program that happened last year in La Plata County.

"They were really successful," she said. "I think they contracted 100 new systems and that’s not 100 new kilowatts, which is our goal."

O’Brien said they’re halfway to that target.

The campaign lasts through the end of this month.

Laura joined KVNF in 2014. She was the news director for two years and now works as a freelance reporter covering Colorado's Western Slope. Laura is an award-winning journalist with work recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Colorado Broadcasters Association, and RTDNA. In 2015, she was a fellow for the Institute for Justice & Journalism. Her fellowship project, a three-part series on the Karen refugee community in Delta, Colorado, received a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
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