The Clean Energy Collective (CEC) is one of those organisations where the more you probe the more blown away you are by its brilliance.
CEC is a business. It doesn’t claim to be anything else. But it is in the business of clean energy, community solar to be specific, and its founder Paul Spencer wants nothing more than to see communities all over the United States – and the world – have access to cheaper, cleaner power.
“It wasn’t an aha moment,” Spencer says of how CEC started in 2009. It was a period of gradual realisations, starting when him and his wife built an off-grid home in Colorado in 2004.
It started him thinking about other families and their ability to tap into wind and solar power. He soon realised that three quarters of houses were poorly sited for solar.
“I thought ‘what if we build one big solar array’,” he says, and the idea for CEC was born.
“If we are going to conquer the need for clean energy one home at a time, it’s never going to happen.
“40 per cent of people rent and 75 per cent of sites are unsuitable, leaving only 15% that can be part of the solution.
“My initial inspiration was that we had to find out a way for the masses to access clean energy and to make it affordable.”
The next step was talking to his local electricity company (Holy Cross Energy) and seeing if they would support the notion of receiving power from a solar array and then off-setting customers’ electricity bills at the same time.
“They said ‘if you can figure out how to do it, we’ll let you do it’,” Spencer says.
Luckily the 42-year-old is an electrical and software engineer and he set about developing – and later copyrighting – a software program that enables utility companies to set rates and bill customers while taking into account each person’s investment in, and production from, solar panels at the relevant solar array.
RemoteMeter has become the backbone of the company. Not only does it allow bills to reflect solar input without placing burdens on utilities, panel owners can also monitor their panels.
And so CEC began. It’s a simple notion. People can buy anything from one solar panel, to enough panels to offset up to 120 per cent of their usage. Once each array – there are 27 in five states – goes online, customers reap the benefits immediately. Depending on their investment – finance is available through low-interest credit unions and there is also lay-by – their bills are offset accordingly.
Panels are guaranteed for 50 years and there is even a trust fund to protect and maintain individual panels in the event the company goes broke.
In February this year, CEC had just 7 staff at its offices in Boulder, Colorado. Now it has 44 staff.
There are 12 utility companies involved and work has started on the 27th project. It boasts 15 megawatts of facilities, about 70,000 solar panels.
“My goal was to create a quantum leap in adoption,” Spencer says.
And it was the RemoteMeter software that made it all possible.
“Nearly everything we do uses RemoteMeter – proposals, websites, contracts, monitoring, bill credits…. It allows us to be efficient while allowing us to keep prices low for the customer. It makes more and more sense every day,” he says.
“Community solar is good for the environment but it’s also good for the customer’s wallet.
“Solar is still a luxury and it is still expensive, but we remove all other barriers such as access or scale. Leaving people to either want to be part of the solution or not.
“I’m a realistic environmentalist – it’s about how to make environmental solutions make sense and making them a reality. I always feel it is necessary to be environmentally responsible.”
Spencer estimates there are $60-70 million in panels owned by individuals through CEC. His company provides 15 per cent of the residential solar energy in Colorado alone. And he’s not stopping there.