New solar panels built over the weekend at Empire Electric in Cortez will give some low- and moderate-income households a break on their electric bills.
Volunteers from various groups converged on Empire’s campus to install the panels, which can generate up to 21 kilowatts of energy. Between five and 10 families who qualify will get a reduced rate on their electric bills, which will be subsidized by energy produced from the panels, said Empire general manager Josh Dellinger.
“We’re concerned with the best interests of our members,” Dellinger said. “This is a project that will bring a positive impact to community.”
The Colorado Energy Office invested $1.2 million to install solar arrays in areas around the state to benefit lower-income energy customers. The focus is on rural cooperatives, such as Empire Electric, which have proven to be early adopters of community solar panel systems, said Colorado Energy Office representative Adrienne Dorsey.
The solar panels at Empire are the first in the state to be installed as part of the agency’s program, Dorsey said.
“It’s really great to see this on the ground,” she said.
The agency also is partnering with GRID Alternatives, a California-based nonprofit that helps build community solar arrays to benefit low- and moderate-income households.
Each program subscriber household will be allocated a certain portion of the arrays that volunteers built over the weekend, Dellinger said. Depending on how much energy the arrays produce, the subscribers will pay a reduced rate for electric service, he said.
Cortez residents Lloyd Gallion and Jim Hannah volunteered Friday to help build the panels. Gallion said the program would be beneficial, especially for seniors who need to save every penny.
“It’s an opportunity to save on energy,” he said.
Hannah, a retired park ranger, said renewable energy sources such as solar panels should get as much exposure as possible. Lots of remote areas are using renewable sources, including Monticello, Utah, which has a wind farm, he said.
Hannah said solar energy is the way to go in the Southwest.
“We’ve got to get more people thinking about this,” he said. “I’m sold on solar.”
Montezuma-Cortez High School seniors David Gonzales-Overton and Kaleb Gideon Burris also helped out Friday. As students in Adrianna Brungardt’s earth science class, Gonzales-Overton and Burris volunteered to help in order to learn about community and land resources, they said.
Burris said all the volunteers worked well together, despite the unseasonably cold temperatures over the weekend.
“Nobody’s in a rush, and everything is organized,” Burris said. “There’s no negative energy here.”
Gonzales-Overton said much of the public perception of solar energy is that it’s a big chore, but that isn’t true. Solar energy systems don’t take up too much land, and the panels don’t take much effort to set up, he said.
The volunteer group gained applause from Gonzales-Overton, too. He said he hoped this would be just the beginning for solar energy in southwest Colorado.
“We’re all working toward the same goals,” he said. “I hope Cortez continues to be involved with this.”