SunShare, a startup born in Colorado Springs that’s built at least two solar gardens in the region and many more elsewhere, hit a snag last summer when one array suffered a five-month outage, shorting customers the monetary benefit of selling power to Colorado Springs Utilities.
SunShare’s owner, David Amster-Olszewski, a Colorado College grad, blamed the problem on a previous supplier’s bankruptcy and a subsequent company’s failure to effectively troubleshoot the problem, as well as work slowdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The outage affected dozens of investors who bought into the array a decade ago, leaving them nowhere to turn because the solar array is essentially unregulated. SunShare doesn’t report to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission or the Colorado Springs Utilities Board. It merely sells power to CSU, enlarging the city’s alternative energy portfolio.
One customer called the outage unfortunate. “This was a promise they would provide the city with sustainable energy, and they dropped the ball,” Leroy Smith, a SunShare customer who lives on the city’s Westside, says in an interview.
Sunshare built a solar garden at 5202 S. Highway 85/87 known as the Venetucci array because it’s located near the historic Venetucci Farm.
It’s since built numerous solar gardens, which allow individuals to participate in solar power by investing in an array without installing solar panels on their homes. The array then produces power that’s sold to a large power provider, in this case CSU, which credits investors’ utility accounts for that solar energy.
SunShare’s website says it’s become “a proven, national leader and innovator in community solar” by “delivering on an efficient and scalable community solar project development and subscriber servicing model.”
Amster-Olszewski moved his company to Denver several years after its founding when CSU changed the reimbursement rate, making solar gardens less lucrative for the developer.
The company has since created arrays in Colorado and Minnesota that total 116 megawatts of power with more than 13,000 community solar subscribers, its website says.
Installed in 2011, the Venetucci array’s power level dropped considerably in May. Production then fell sharply in June and declined still more in July. Instead of producing from 60 to 90 megawatt hours (MWh) into the system per month, like it had in previous years, the panels produced as little as one-half to 10 MWh per month from July to October. November showed production of 25 MWh, and December, 51 MWh.
Amster-Olszewski tells the Indy via email that both of the array’s inverters failed. Inverters convert direct current produced by the power panels into alternating current that can be fed into the CSU grid.
“The manufacturer went out of business and the company that took over all their warranties from them ... took a while to troubleshoot and do multiple repairs (citing Covid, etc),” Amster-Olszewski says.
Each time technicians worked on the solar garden, a day or two later it would shut down. They finally got one inverter running in November, which Amster-Olszewski says returned production to 50 percent, at 25 MWh. However, CSU’s accounting shows the array produced 71 MWh in November 2020, much more than in November 2021.
The second inverter was repaired right after Thanksgiving, Amster-Olszewski says, “and the system has now been working for a month without issue.”
He admits it was a longer than acceptable outage and that a similar situation in Minnesota lost only two months of production.
“[T]here were several parts that had issues, which by chance kept failing one after the other after each [technician] visit,” he says. “Combine that with there being less techs trained for this inverter given the manufacturer went out of business. But the plus side is that a lot of parts got replaced.”
SunShare, though a power provider, isn’t regulated like a utility. “Think of us more like regular company. Like Apple. That serves customers with a product,” Amster-Olszewski says. He notes, however, that since the product is service-based, the company could come under scrutiny via the legal system.
He also notes the outage represents only 4 percent of the time it’s been up and running.
While Amster-Olszewski says he will tack on additional months at the end of the array’s 20-year contracts, that might not be much help to those who are retirement-aged and may not still own their houses by then.
Smith, who says he’s in his 70s, admits the amounts the solar garden generates to offset his bill are small — about $25 per month — so he figures the outage cost him roughly $100.
But he wonders if Amster-Olszewski has an analytical report that shows specifically how much power was produced on which days, so that customers can truly be made whole.
For example, although Amster-Olszewski claimed in an email to patrons that the array had returned to half capacity by Nov. 11, Smith’s bill from Nov. 11 to Dec. 13 reflected a credit from CSU of only $3, not the normal $25.
Smith also notes he’s not received any detailed explanation for how long his contract will be extended.
Nicole Rosa, another local resident and SunShare subscriber, says, “For the last 5 months of 2021, we basically [have] gotten ZERO credits on our utility bills.
“They claim that inverters kept failing and they were unable to get the parts needed to fix them,” she adds. “To date, the issue has not been resolved. I can see this going on for perhaps a month, but 5 months?!”
She acknowledged the company will credit each member’s accounts for the number of months the solar garden wasn’t performing. “So that’s something,” she says.
Regarding older subscribers, Amster-Olszewski says SunShare will facilitate customers who want to sell their subscriptions or pass them to heirs. He adds that subscribers are welcome to contact the company for more details.
Smith says the offset to his utility bill is less important to him than the community benefit. “We didn’t sign up for this because we were hoping to save a lot of money, or get credit on utilities,” he says. “We did it because we wanted to encourage alternative energy sources and make a small contribution to environmental problems we’re experiencing. We were happy to do it even if we lost a little money.”
Smith suggests that SunShare fully support existing customers before moving on to big contracts, and assure the first objective is met — to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.
“The tricky thing is, it’s not like our power goes out,” Smith says. “It’s just the city gets less sustainable energy.”