The Giving Garden: Boulder starts solar farm for low-income mobile home residents

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The City of Boulder’s solar farm for the Ponderosa mobile home is the first built specifically for low-income residents.
Photo courtesy of the City of Boulder

Even with the promise of free electricity, Kathy Schlereth remains skeptical of the city of Boulder.

She has lived in Ponderosa in Boulder for 20 years, long enough to call her neighborhood what it is, a mobile home park, not the politically correct “Manufactured Home Community.” Now the city has started the Ponderosa Solar Garden. The garden produces solar energy off-site that is sold back to the electrical grid, giving the residents of Ponderosa credits that reduce or eliminate their monthly electric bill.

Solar gardens have been around for years for private subscribers who want to be more environmentally friendly and cut their bills, but this is the first time a Colorado municipality has built one specifically for low-income residents in a particular community.

Boulder’s decision should benefit her. She and other Ponderosa residents should see $400 in annual credit off their electric bill.

But back in 2017, the city purchased Ponderosa to create long-term stability for the low-income residents there. Instead, it created a lot of animosity: The move came with its share of problems, including what the residents said were some unfulfilled promises by the city, that left many of the 45 residents there a little leery of just about anything to do with Boulder. .

So when the city approached the residents about an idea to give them free solar power, “it sounded too good to be true,” she said. “Lots of folks out here don’t trust the city or its programs.”

What is a solar garden?

Sometimes called “solar farms,” gardens are really the same thing: An area where solar panels are installed off-site from businesses and residences.

The power generated at the solar garden is sold back into the overall power grid. The sale generates credits for subscribers of the garden to save money on their regular electric bill.

Subscribers are generally businesses or residents who either can’t afford or don’t have the practical space for solar panels on their own property.

Why would people want to subscribe? Well, we are talking about Boulder here. A lot of residents and businesses are environmentally sensitive and solar gardens are seen as a way to off-set traditional electric’s carbon footprint. And, of course, subscriptions come with credits that can reduce or eliminate your electric bill.

Solar dreams

How does this work in Boulder? Well, it all starts with marijuana. No, really.

The City of Boulder started the Energy Impact Offset Fund to offset the carbon footprint of cannabis grow facilities and pot shops, which take a lot of power to run. Cannabis companies could either install solar on-site, subscribe to a local solar garden or give money to the fund. The fund then uses the money to increase renewable energy in the city. And that’s where the money came from for the Ponderosa Solar Garden.

GRID Alternatives of Denver, a company that constructs a number of solar operations for municipalities, school districts and other large organizations,, built the garden on land owned by the city near the Boulder Reservoir. Boulder chose Ponderosa to meet a couple goals.

“The city is trying to increase renewable use, especially to increase access for low-income populations,” said Yael Gichon, energy project manager for Boulder. The city has a goal of eliminating all energy costs for all of its residents by 2035, and this is considered one more step in that direction.

Another Boulder Energy Manager, Carolyn Elam, said of the program in a city press release, “Today’s market simply does not offer many solutions to make solar accessible for people living in manufactured housing communities. Most of these homes can’t support solar on their roofs, and private solar garden developers rarely serve the residential community, much less households with lower incomes.”

The city already has Solar Grants ( and Rebates ( available for residents who want to put solar panels on their homes, but the city’s code does not allow mobile homes to have solar panels.

Schlereth was already familiar with the city’s solar programs: She said she looked into several of the programs the city has for solar in her neighborhood.

“When you are on a fixed income, you always want to see where you can cut corners,” she said.

Photo from the City of Boulder

When she found out her options were limited, she gave up that hope until about two years ago when the city started talking about the Ponderosa Solar Garden. That’s about how long it takes to bring a solar garden to fruition, said Gichon. The process involves finding the right location for the garden, getting the right company in to build it and then getting everyone signed up.

After receiving a grant from Xcel Energy and support from the GRID Colorado folks, the city began reaching out to Ponderosa residents. Matt McNearney, director of strategic development for GRID Colorado, said of the 45 residents, 27 have signed up for the program, 13 are taking a “wait and see” attitude and 5 are a “hard no.”

Schlereth, the skeptic, was originally one of those who was hesitant. “But I’m on the HOA board and the residents committee. I kind of felt like I needed to sign up just so I knew what the hell was going on,” she said.

Signing up was fairly simple, Schlereth said. A couple forms and a picture of her electric bill was all it took.

The garden officially started in June, but due to some billing complications, the credits were not on the first bill. Residents have been promised those credits plus the ones for July will be on the next bill.

“This could be a real benefit for those of us out here who are seniors on a fixed income,” Schlereth said. “I will be more excited when I actually see the bill.”

While she remains somewhat skeptical, Schlereth sees what this will mean for people in her neighborhood. “For some people this will completely wipe out their electric bill,” she said. “Nobody can understand what that will mean here.”

While the garden is still in its infancy, it is already catching the attention of others around the country, Gichon said. “We have had webinars and conversations with other sustainability directors. Word is getting out.”

And Schlereth thinks the program and Boulder’s commitment to renewable energy are all part of Boulder’s image. “Boulder is all about cutting edge and being the healthiest and this is right in line with that,” she said. “Boulder really does set the standard for being the first and foremost in solar.”

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