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What do pot and houses of worship have in common? They’re new markets for solar

Solar providing power to keep a stock tank full of water. Courtesy NRELIn one of the more unique sessions at the Colorado Solar Power conference ‘The Path to a Million Solar Roofs’ in Colorado this week, a group of panelists ranging for advocates for marijuana to religious leaders and rural regions discussed how solar can help them and what they’re looking for to make it happen, as well as what challenges they face. 

Yes, pot. Yes, it’s still technically federally illegal. But as is well known, Colorado and Washington state legalized weed this past election season. So while it’s legal in the states (final terms of legislation are being worked out) the industry is still facing some hazy issues. For instance, a lot of grow houses—often in warehouses—could benefit from solar to reduce their energy demand during peak hours, explained Norton Arbelaez, founder of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group and owner of RiverRock Wellness. “Currently there is 1 million square feet of commercial real estate that is leased to the marijuana industry in the state of Colorado, I think there is a lot of opportunity there for your industry [i.e., the solar industry],” he said.

Yet the cannabis industry faces some unique challenges because of its still quasi-legal status, like access to financing, despite being a high cash crop (pun unintended) with good returns on investment.  “Few of these businesses own the warehouses where they cultivate. Because of the federal law issue a lot of these marijuana businesses have difficulty accessing banking and lines of credit,” Arbelaez said. “For solar to really be an option for us we need to be able to see short-term gains from installing the panels, installing solar energy, have the option to lease the panels and be able to move them from location to location.”

Houses of worship face some entirely different issues when looking for solar. For instance, their tax-exempt status means they can’t directly benefit from many of the incentive programs out there, since they aren’t taxed like businesses or people. As such they have to work with companies and toward third-party ownership models or even to create create limited liability corporations to access the incentives, explained Rev. Dr. Larry Grimm, Parish associate with  Capital Heights Presbyterian Church in Denver. Grimm is also a board member of Colorado Interfaith Power and Light (CoIPL), a chapter of the national IPL group.

“What can religious bodies offer to the industry and to the goal,” Grimm asked. “We got a lot of rooftops. We have 51 congregations in my presbytery [jurisdiction].…Of those not all of them are ready to have their rooftops sustain an array, but Many are ready to do that.”  He added that religious institutions often also have a lot of land, which could be used for, for instance, a solar garden. They also have a lot of parishioners or believers, depending on the faith. People who could also benefit from solar on their homes or buildings.

While solar can offer houses a worship a good value proposition there are still those that are skeptical. And, while some Christians in the U.S. may doubt solar or climate change, Grimm explained that Christians, given the mission of stewardship by their God, have a mission to protect the earth.

Solar plants are often referred to as farms, because we harvest energy from them and they use tracts of space to generate that energy. As such, many large solar farms are being installed in rural areas, but the farmers and ranchers in the area aren’t always directly benefitting from them or the transmission lines that can transect their farms. John Covert of Colorado Working Landscapes, which works to advocate for renewable energy projects that keep money within the communities they’re located in, discussed the value and issues Colorado’s farmers and ranchers have with solar. “There's about 36,700 farmers and ranchers in Colorado and they control access to about 34 million acres of sun shine,” he said.

Some of the early adopters of solar were rangeland owners, according to Covert. He explained that they used solar to pump water for stock and to power remote electric fences.

Another potential use for solar for farmers is to pump water for energy intensive, irrigated crops. Many of which in Colorado are co-located on square plots and serviced by sprinklers on circular pivots. “Each one of these are pulling water either out of the aquifer or of the service canal,” Covert said. “There's about 6,000 pumps that are serving these pivots.…When 4 crop circles come together, that space in the middle is about over 20-acres of unproductive,…It's a perfect location for a ground-mounted solar system.” He theorized that 2.5 gigawatts of solar could be installed on these corners. However, farmers haven’t benefitted from solar incentives like others when using such systems. His group is working to change that.

In fact, all the groups involved in the session are working with the legislature in Colorado to make sure they’re viable markets for solar and that it holds a good return on investment for their needs. The conference was held and organized by the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA).

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