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DENVER — On a piece of empty land outside Arvada, thousands of solar panels are collecting energy from the bright Colorado sun.

More than a dozen rows of panels turn throughout the day from east to west, following the sun until it sets behind the mountains.

However, the panels don’t belong to an electric utility. Instead, a local company called SunShare own them.

It’s called a community solar garden, a place where companies and homeowners can make the switch to renewable energy without the cost of installing panels.

“The panels attract the sun, produce energy every day, and then Xcel or the local electric utility transfers the energy into that customer’s electricity bill, so it’s just like having the panels on the rooftop of your house,” says SunShare CEO David Amster-Olszewksi.

For years, the knock on solar energy has been the cost. Only about 20 percent of people can install solar in the first place due to size or shade restrictions on their property. Those who do install panels often wait years to see a positive return on their investment.

“Customers don’t have to pay any money upfront like they would for a rooftop solar system,” said Amster-Olszewksi.

Business for SunShare has been so good, it isn’t accepting new customers.

“All of our projects are sold out before they’re built,” said Amster-Olszewksi. “So we’ve actually been sold out in Colorado for a couple of years.”

But that could be about to change if a new piece of legislation gets approved by lawmakers.

The Community Solar Gardens Modernization Act would allow gardens to grow from their current 2 megawatt max to 5 or 10 megawatts. It would also remove the requirement that customers must live in the same county, or adjacent county, to the garden.

“Solar now is the cheapest option in the marketplace,” says Rep. Chris Hansen. “I ultimately see this being a pathway to help save customers money.”

Rep. Hansen created the legislation after he says he realized Colorado had fallen behind other states in terms of solar accessibility.

The bill passed through the House Appropriations Committee on a 7-4 vote this week, with seven Democrats voting in favor and four Republicans voting against.

It’s scheduled to be discussed on the House floor next week.

Following the airing of this story, we received the following statement from Republican Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, who voted against the measure:

“Most people I know in the Republican Caucus supports the all of the above solution to our energy policy.  You can’t tear down our fossil fuels industry and continue to prop up the wind and solar industries thru (sic) subsidies and be sustainable in the long run.”

Amster-Olszewski says it takes between 10-15 panels to power the average home.

He says some of their larger customers, like companies, can actually save money on electric costs, while residential subscribers pay a slight premium.

“You’re talking about a Starbucks coffee a month,” he says. “It’s not a significant premium, and it gives customers the ability to know where their energy is coming from.”

SunShare is currently putting people on a waiting list, with plans to construct a handful of new gardens before the end of 2019.

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