This story is part of a collaboration with Rocky Mountain Community Radio focusing on the transition away from fossil fuels across the Mountain West.
Ponderosa is one of five mobile home parks in the City of Boulder. In 2019, the city purchased the park to maintain affordable housing and to improve park infrastructure. One of the projects the city took on was creating access to solar energy for the residents. Carlos Valdez has lived in Ponderosa for nine years, and he says his energy bill is now lower.
“During the summer, I was paying like $80-$90. Now I’m paying $40-$35,” Valdez said. “That was my lowest bill.”
Ponderosa residents who now have access to solar energy will save, on average, more than $400 on their electricity bills each year. That’s especially important for low income communities, which typically pay higher energy costs as the homes are often not well insulated and are less energy efficient.
Carolyn Elam, energy systems senior manager for the City of Boulder, said in addition, mobile home residents have historically been excluded from accessing solar energy because the panels don’t fit on the homes.
“They can’t support solar panels on their roof. They’re not structural, there’s other limitations,” Elam said, “and so we really wanted to figure it out–how to come up with a solution that benefited everybody in the community.”
The city came up with the idea of a solar garden, located outside of the park.
“One of the benefits of what we have as a city organization is we own a lot of land and structures. And so, several years ago we did an analysis. We hired a company to look at where all the potential was on things that the city itself owned. So, whether that was buildings like an airport or our municipal buildings or land,” Elam said. “And this particular garden, we found a location for it. It’s adjacent to the Boulder reservoir at the north end of Boulder. And one of the benefits of solar gardens is they don’t have to be located exactly where the customers are, the people who are getting the benefits of it, so we can take advantage of places that have that space to install the system.”
Elam also says the funding for the project comes from a completely different industry.
“We actually collect, as part of our marijuana cultivation licensing process, they’re required to offset their energy. We reinvest that in the community. So, we had some funding available and we’re able to make that investment. And we started to look at different ways we could bring solar.”
The first resident to allow the city to install the solar system was Kathy Schlereth.
“Yeah, I ended up being the first person who actually got hooked up,” Schlereth said. “It didn’t start till, I think it was July last year when it physically was going to be turned on, but it was a couple of months before the glitches all got worked out.”
“My first bill was an $80 savings, but it’s averaged out so far to about $37 a month,” she continued. “And we were told that the city was going to up how much solar energy we could have. And so we were told at some point that our bills should be at least paid half of our bill, which would really be nice. And it was kind of nice too, that’s the way it worked out, so it was actually hooked up before we had to start using our furnaces to help balance the extra bill added on from having to heat our homes for the winter.”
The Ponderosa solar garden is the first city-owned garden in the country that is dedicated to low-income participants. Moving forward, the city is also looking at other solar garden projects to expand access to renewable energy to other low-income communities, renters and those who live in multi-family buildings.