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Springs Utilities taps into more solar power 

Colorado Springs Utilities will expand its solar gardening program by adding 10 megawatts eligible for rebates in the next three years, a major increase from the two megawatts developed under a pilot program that ended in 2012.

Solar gardens allow residents to invest in solar power without having panels attached to their homes, which is useful especially for those who rent and those whose rooftops aren't conducive to panel installation.

How rebates are handled will change from an up-front payout to a performance-based incentive, whereby Utilities pays for kilowatt hours generated instead of capacity installed, explains David Amster-Olszewski, owner of solar-garden provider SunShare. The change stems from a city audit that found several problems, including deviation from a requirement that subscribers were supposed to pay their obligation to the developer prior to the developer being paid the incentive.

Amster-Olszewski says the change means the rebate will be paid over 20 years, forcing the solar garden developer to be accountable for the project long-term.

"Instead of getting the rebates upfront, now they have a strong incentive to keep the system running for 20 years," he says in an e-mail.

The program, sanctioned by a majority of the Utilities Board, which is made up of City Council members, will add three megawatts this year, three in 2014 and four in 2015. Reimbursement rates for the solar power bought by Utilities will be 16 cents per kilowatt hour this year, 12 cents in 2014 and 10 cents for 2015.

That will cost ratepayers $21 million over the next 20 years, Utilities officials say.

"What they're trying to get to is zero," says Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman, "where the industry can get by on its own without being subsidized."

Council is expected to vote on the program's new tariff on April 9. The effective date of the program hasn't been determined, Grossman says.

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