How Clean Energy Could Become the New Standard in Affordable Housing

With the launch of its Community Solar Program in December, Denver Housing Authority became the first housing authority in the nation to develop, own, and operate its own solar garden.

There are plenty of reasons consumers invest in renewable energy, but for a housing authority, one of the biggest benefits associated with green living is the long-term economic impact.

An estimated 25,000 Denverites cannot afford housing — and that’s why Denver Housing Authority is constantly thinking up new ways to expand on its local housing services.  

From mid-rises and row homes to single family dwellings, DHA owns and manages 5,500 housing units throughout the city. “The majority of our portfolio is public housing, and because we also administer 6,800 housing choice vouchers, we serve almost 12,000 households with affordable and subsidized housing annually,” explains Ismael Guerrero, DHA’s executive director.

In order to “further expand the pathways for individuals who have yet to benefit from Denver’s growth and prosperity,” Guerrero says, DHA leverages partnerships with for-profit organizations.

DHA's solar garden is the first 100 percent low-income solar garden in Colorado. Photo provided by DHA.

One example is the synergy between DHA and Comcast. Since 2016, more than 1,000 DHA residents have connected to high-speed Internet thanks to Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, a low-income broadband accessibility program that costs qualified residents $9.95 a month.
DHA’s Community Solar Program is another example of an innovative initiative that’s transforming affordable housing units into comfortable places residents can call home.

Going Green

In 2007, DHA started reducing its carbon footprint when it underwent an “efficiency retrofit,” upgrading public housing units with simple, eco-friendly features such as energy efficient lighting, new windows, and low-flow water fixtures.

Because the program was successful at lowering DHA’s operating costs, the housing authority contracted with the Denver-based consulting firm Group14 Engineering in 2012, to develop an $11 million Phase II Energy Performance Contract. The EPC allowed DHA to continue financing sustainable upgrades in a larger portion of its units.

“Especially with the 2012 effort, one of the big focuses was on improving resident comfort,” says Michael Levinson, CEM, affordable housing team leader at Group14 Engineering.  

In addition to adding high-efficiency furnaces and better insulation, DHA was able to “improve thermostatic control,” Levinson says, explaining that these changes increased comfort levels — along with energy and water efficiency — in close to 4,000 DHA-owned units.

DHA's solar garden will put out an estimated 3.6 million kilowatt hours of energy annually, enough energy to power 500 homes for an entire year. Photos provided by DHA.

Group14 Engineering also provides annual measurement and verification services for DHA. “Every year, we check to see how everything is performing,” Levinson says.

So far, so good. In 2017 alone, DHA saved 175.7 million gallons of water over the project baseline. “That’s 621 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water,” says Levinson.

During its 2012 retrofit, DHA also entered into a Solar Power Purchase Agreement, which allowed it to add solar panels to 665 of its homes, free of cost.     

Solar panels can be installed on roofs, where they’re used to convert sunlight into electricity. DHA owns thousands of rooftops in Denver, but only a portion of them were “solar eligible,” says Chris Jedd, portfolio energy manager at Denver Housing Authority.

“The big challenge was finding viable roofs,” Jedd explains.  

“If we wanted to get serious about solar, we knew we’d have to look off-site,” he continues. In early 2016, Jedd and his colleagues began tossing around the idea for building a solar garden, or a shared solar array (a big cluster of solar panels) with grid-connected subscribers.

Sun-Powered Energy

Located on Hudson Road, in Watkins, DHA’s 10-acre solar garden has been operational since December 20, 2017. The array is made up of 5,958 rotating solar panels situated on a 74-acre site owned by the city of Aurora, run by SolarTAC, the largest solar research facility in America
The site is perfect because, unlike some of DHA’s rooftops, it’s surrounded by open space that’s devoid of trees and their sun-shielding shade.

Located on Hudson Road, in Watkins, DHA's 10-acre solar garden has been operational since December 20, 2017.

DHA’s new solar garden powers 500 low-income homes in the Denver metro area. And if this is starting to sound like science fiction, well, Jedd says it is just plain old science that turns sunlight on panels into energy that can be metered.

“Xcel Energy, the utility here, has a great program,” Jedd begins. Basically, DHA connects its solar garden to the power line on the street, which feeds into Xcel’s grid. “We know how much renewable energy we are putting in, and we can tell them how much to take out,” Jedd says, explaining the process of “net metering.”

DHA’s solar garden will put out an estimated 3.6 million kilowatt hours of energy annually. In terms non-engineers can understand, Jedd says, “That’s enough energy to power 500 homes for an entire year.” It’s also the carbon reduction equivalent to planting 1.2 million trees, or taking 10,000 passenger vehicles off the road.

DHA developed its solar garden, financed it — and now it maintains it, too. “This is pretty unique for a housing authority,” Jedd admits. Most housing authorities utilizing solar energy “contract out” their solar needs.

The solar garden cost DHA $3.8 million dollars, and was financed with tax credit investment equity and debt, Jedd says.
It was worth the cost. The housing authority anticipates lowering its utilities by 20 percent in 2018, in those properties currently subscribed to DHA’s solar garden. “A portion of the garden is dedicated to DHA residents who are directly saving $15 to $20 dollars a month,” adds Jedd.

“Not only does solar energy reduce the utility bill, but it’s predictable,” Jedd continues. DHA’s solar prices are locked in for the next two decades, which means savings will increase as the market rate for electricity goes up.

Sharing the Sun

DHA’s solar garden is the first 100 percent low-income solar garden in Colorado, and the Community Solar Program allows DHA to provide subscription services to other Denver-based housing authorities, too.  

Right now, Jedd says, about 80 percent of the houses subscribed to DHA’s solar garden are DHA-owned properties. The remaining 20 percent of subscribers are non-DHA affordable housing developments in the Denver metro area — though DHA is hoping to increase the number of outside subscribers.

Because DHA reinvests its savings into its properties and resident services, the housing authority’s residents benefit almost as much as the environment. Jedd thinks this program could be a model for other housing authorities throughout the country.


Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
Signup for Email Alerts