Electrical costs for pumping water to a low-income housing development in Durango are about to go down as a grant-funded solar array nears completion.
The 16.7 kilowatt installation at Southwest Horizon Ranch, about 10 miles east of town, is expected to be functioning by the end of October. The panels will offset 100 percent of the costs to operate the well system, and $5,000 in annual utility costs collectively for the community’s 61 households.
The project has been a year in the making.
Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency (4CORE) launched the Southwest Solar Barn Raising program last year to provide renewable energy options to low-income households with the hope that the project would be a benchmark for similar developments throughout the region. The program’s name refers to the Amish tradition of barn raising with the help of multiple volunteers.
Funded by local sponsorships and grants from La Plata Electric Association and the Environmental Justice Group, an arm of the Environmental Protection Agency, the project cost $62,000. That sum also covers a separate solar installation for a single-family residence in Bayfield, built by the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The single home is considered part of the 4CORE project.
The EPA provided a $30,000 grant, and LPEA contributed $25,000.
The price of solar infrastructure has dropped across the country over the past 10 years, and the Department of Energy is working to perpetuate that trend with a goal of reducing the price to $7,500 per household by 2020. Yet the average $15,000 to $25,000 cost (before rebates and credits) to capture sunshine remains out of reach for a percentage of households, particularly in cities like Durango with a high cost of living.
An estimated 28 percent, or more than 7,200, of La Plata County households are considered cost-burdened, which means 30 percent or more of monthly household income goes to housing costs, including rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance and real estate taxes.
“We want this to be a replicable model,” said Laurie Dickson, 4CORE program director. Dickson said her organization tends to continue pursuing EPA grants to fund more projects like this one.
Low-income households naturally tend to pay a higher percentage of their earnings to these costs. Because of the lack of affordable and attainable housing in La Plata County, families qualify to live at Southwest Horizon Ranch based on an income cap, said property manager Kelly Kenney.
Kenney said there are no plans to sell the 35-acre community any time soon, which means renters exclusively benefit from the panels. That’s important, she said, because renters get to benefit from clean energy only if a property owner decides to invest in it.
The installation is expected to prevent an estimated 915 metric tons of carbon pollution in the region over the next 25 years.
On Monday, volunteers from LPEA, local solar companies and a few residents were at work installing a long row of dark-blue panels behind the home Susan Haines rents.
“This will help all the residents,” Haines said. “It’s in my backyard, and I’m happy about it.”