Community Rebuilds

Community Rebuilds staff proudly display their grant check alongside representatives from Rocky Mountain Power and Synergy Power. Pictured, from left to right, are Alivia Michalski, Jessica Manderfield, and Rikki Epperson of Community Rebuilds, with Stacey Davis of Rocky Mountain Power and Marshall Manley of Synergy Power. [Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

The two-story straw bale Community Rebuilds bunkhouse is now rigged to be 100% powered by the sun. On the evening of Sept. 25, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the building, which usually houses 16 interns for each of the sustainable building nonprofit’s two yearly semesters.

A 51-panel solar array was installed on the bunkhouse roof several weeks ago by technicians from Sandy, Utah-based solar company Synergy Power, funded largely by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power through their Blue Sky Renewable Energy program.

Community Rebuilds began in Moab in 2010 with the mission of building energy-efficient, affordable housing while also providing education in sustainable building. Each year, building volunteers from across the country and the world travel to Moab for a five-month program to help build straw bale homes, made affordable for low-income candidates through grants from the United States Department of Agriculture. According to the nonprofit’s website, by the end of this year, the program will have completed 43 homes, mostly in the Moab area.

Community Rebuilds founder and current Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus attended the small-scale, outdoor celebration, along with Community Rebuilds staff and representatives from Rocky Mountain Power and Synergy Power. Rocky Mountain Power supplies energy to customers in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, and is the main electricity supplier for Moab. Their Blue Sky Program allows customers to opt-in to buy “blocks” of energy from renewable sources like wind or solar power. For a nominal monthly fee per block, the power company will purchase “Renewable Energy Certificates” from renewable power sources.

“We buy RECs on the customer’s behalf and put that energy into the system,” explained Stacey Davis of Rocky Mountain Power, who attended the ribbon-cutting. “If you wanted to be a green power user, you can purchase enough blocks to cover your entire usage.”

Any money left over from the Blue Sky program is channeled into grants like the one awarded to Community Rebuilds for $36,954.

“Whenever we encounter a nonprofit entity that’s looking for solar, we recommend that they search out grant opportunities because they don’t qualify for the state and federal tax credits,” said Marshall Manley of Synergy Power, who was also at the event.

Because Community Rebuilds is a tax-exempt nonprofit, it cannot take advantage of tax credit programs. Synergy Power contributed $5,000 to the project.

“We are so grateful for the Blue Sky program and Synergy Power for enabling us to add the final component of solar PV to our bunkhouse, making it complete,” Community Rebuilds Executive Director Rikki Epperson said.

Community Rebuilds has had to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic; this spring, interns finished their semester early, and this fall the organization is operating with a reduced team. The bunkhouse is currently unoccupied to minimize shared living space; instead, volunteers are housed in another Community Rebuilds residence in their own rooms.

While a sense of achievement and congeniality prevailed at the ribbon-cutting, solar advocates in Utah perceive a threat to the clean energy movement. Rocky Mountain Power has proposed a reduction in its “export credit rates,” the amount the utility company pays solar generators for excess power, for future solar customers.

According to a Sept. 28 article in PV Magazine, a monthly trade publication, Rocky Mountain currently pays about 9.2 cents in credit per kilowatt-hour of solar exported by solar customers. If the new proposal is accepted by the Utah Public Service Commission, Rocky Mountain would pay future solar generators about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for excess energy. The proposal also includes a one-time application fee of $150 and a one-time “customer generation meter” fee of $160.

Solar advocates like nonprofits Utah Clean Energy and Vote Solar have disputed Rocky Mountain Power’s cost calculations, claiming the company failed to factor in a variety of benefits from solar, like elimination of energy loss through transmission lines, because the power is produced on-site, and a reduction in pollution and improvement of air quality.

Community Rebuilds has asked their supporters to email the Utah Public Service Commission in opposition to the rate change.

“Should the utility's proposal be accepted, very few Utahns will be able to confidently invest in solar and may never have the ability to see a return on their investment,” read the Sept. 29 email from Community Rebuilds.

A virtual hearing before the Utah Public Service Commission began on Sept. 29 and can be accessed through the agency’s website at psc.utah.gov. The hearing is ongoing, and public comments will be heard on Oct. 5. Those wishing to comment at that meeting must have made an appointment with the Public Service Commission by Wednesday, Sept. 30.