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An array of solar panels in the snow.
View of a newly-opened community solar farm in Greeley on Wednesday, November 20, 2022. A new business model made the project possible. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Once a solar farm’s power hits the Xcel Energy grid, there are no bespoke electrons. The clean electricity goes wherever the power lines and the laws of physics decide to deliver it. 

But the cellphone giant T-Mobile will take some credit nevertheless for the power that recently began uploading from a twin set of 2-megawatt arrays in a farm field east of Greeley. 

T-Mobile’s 113 regional stores are the anchor subscriber to the two arrays built by Namaste Solar and two finance partners, Unico Solar Investors and Excelsior Energy Capital, further diversifying how renewable energy gets built in Colorado. Unico Solar hopes the 20-year contract with a high-profile national corporation will promote even more innovation in Colorado solar, including filling in the growing stock of warehouse and big box retail rooftops with urban solar arrays conveniently close to the grid. 

“We want to keep pushing the boundaries,” said Unico Solar co-founder Adam Knoff. T-Mobile, Knoff said, is helping “pave the way for other large-scale businesses” to be directly involved in renewable energy development. T-Mobile earlier in 2022 became the first major U.S. telecommunications company to contract for renewable energy for 100% of its needs, the company said. 

T-Mobile is just one example of a potential big-name customer for smaller community solar gardens, said Namaste Solar co-owner Eliot Abel. Much of the company’s space is smaller retail leases inside malls or office developments, not the kinds of large buildings where they could support their own rooftop arrays. 

“Collectively, it’s a lot of energy usage. They’d like to offset but they can’t do it on site,” Abel said. “And that’s where community solar is great.” 

The fields near Greeley are leased from Charles and Debra Bird, and designed to be as compact as possible to allow continued agricultural uses around the edges, the developers said. Renewable energy leases bring another possible profit stream into family agriculture operations on the edges of growing metro areas, where land is under pressure from denser development. The 4 megawatts that went online in early November “collectively produce enough energy for about 650-plus average sized homes,” Abel said.

The Greeley arrays are the last wave Unico and Namaste are developing under a multiyear community solar agreement with Xcel dating to 2019. New multiyear pacts, where Xcel agrees to buy a certain amount of power from community developers, now include boosted requirements for signing up lower-income subscribers to absorb the new power generation and benefit from subsidies.

The partners said they are looking forward to bidding on pieces of the 300 megawatts of community solar Xcel has committed to contracting for in the latest Renewable Energy Plan that runs through 2025. 

Icicles form on a solar panel at a newly-opened community solar farm in Greeley on Wednesday, November 20, 2022. Developers say lease payments can help farmers stay on agricultural land with renewable energy as another income stream. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Xcel also develops much larger utility-scale solar and wind projects on its own. 

Large-scale rooftop solar on warehouses and big box retail buildings are likely to be part of the next wave of community solar projects, as developers look beyond traditional farm and suburban open space locations, Knoff said. Developers could partner with both landlords and the big commercial companies who occupy the buildings, while using the locations to make renewable energy more visible to city dwellers, Knoff said. 

Such developments will put the “community” back in the gardens by bringing the solar arrays inside the community, “embedded with your environment,” Knoff said. 

“We’re excited to show that that can be done under a variety of different uses and system sizes,” he said. 

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.