INterview with Clean Energy Collective President Paul Spencer

By: Steve Wednesday September 12, 2012 Tags: Carbondale, CEC, Paul Spencer, Poudre Valley REA, solar energy, solar gardens

Paul Spencer is the founder and president of Clean Energy Collective, a Carbondale-based organization started in 2009 to help communities across the country establish solar gardens.

Spencer recently helped dedicate a 494-panel community-owned solar array at Poudre Valley REA in Windsor. The project is among seven the CEC has so far helped develop in Colorado, New Mexico and Minnesota.

Q: What was the origin of Clean Energy Collective? How did it come about?

A: The CEC was a progression of steps in my career thus far. It started with one part electrical engineering degree from Colorado State University; a second part of having created several engineering and software firms early in my career; a third part of designing and building our own off-grid home in 2004 with my wife Julia (powered by the sun and wind); a fourth part of being a co-founder of Bonsai Communities and designing a net-zero neighborhood for which we proposed a centralized solar system to our local utility (Holy Cross Energy) to collectively power 89 homes; and finally the realization that a broader, more accessible and smarter financial solar solution was needed across the country -- if not the world -- to realize some real benefit from deployable clean energy solutions.

If we can power a single home or an entire neighborhood, why not countless homes and businesses within a utility regardless of proximity to the resulting solar facility? The only obstacles in our way were figuring out how to do it legally -- tax-wise -- and inventing the underlying software technology to apply monthly credits on customer utility bills (RemoteMeter). And so it went...

Q: Has it been a tough sell or an easy sell to get utilities and their customers interested in these community solar gardens?

A: It has been formidable, but only because it is an education process for utilities and consumers to understand and appreciate something that is completely new and different. We were defining community solar to the marketplace and it has nothing in common with traditional solar, other than it shares a common part in a solar panel. A bit like explaining to a farmer 100 years ago that you have a new contraption called an automobile, which is based on round tires like his wheel barrel, but has so many more benefits.

Q: What's CEC's relationship with Martifer Solar USA and how have they aided the development of CEC projects?

A: Martifer Solar is a trusted construction partner for us. We make projects a reality with utilities and customers (know-how, funding, sites, sales, marketing, administration), but we do not specialize in physically constructing the resulting solar projects. For that, we rely on Martifer, an excellent EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) partner that solely focuses on construction. Martifer, and sub-partners like Sunsense Solar and eLight, have built all of our facilities to date.

Q: Tell me about CEC's proprietary RemoteMeter System and how that has played a role in the community solar garden's appeal.

A: RemoteMeter is a rather complicated software system that, at its root, automates the monthly solar production credit process by tabulating and applying solar production credits from the community solar facility and placing them directly on the customer's utility bill - all without creating additional, undue work for the utility. Without it, we would be a one-trick pony.

We recognized early on that in order to be a good partner with utilities, one of the services we had to provide was the underlying bill-crediting and billing integration solutions. Little known is that the bill credit function within RemoteMeter is only 10 prcent of its greater functionality. It provides customers and utilities with 24/7 access to live power production and credit history, interacts with mobile devices, runs our various pricing engines, contracts, websites and telemetry monitoring sites for each facility. The list goes on and on.

Q: What's the future growth of CEC look like given its rapid expansion so far?

A: We definitely have a lot of hard work ahead of us. We have been reshaping solar one community at a time, creating large jumps in solar ownership and enhancing the attractiveness of solar. In the future, we hope to do more of the same -- much more. Eventually achieving a measurable national impact by allowing the other 85 percent (those without well-sighted traditional solar sites, renters, low income, etc.) to be part of the solution -- community solar!


About the Author: Steve