Groundbreaking is set Friday for the first community-owned solar array in Xcel Energy's Colorado service area, on the home turf of the legislator who sponsored the law making the project possible.

The 500-kilowatt Boulder Cowdery Meadows Solar Array is to be located at 1600 S. 66th St. in unincorporated Boulder County adjacent to an Xcel station just outside Superior, serving a mix of about 100 residential, commercial and nonprofit users. Completion of construction is expected by late April.

The solar garden initiative, known as the Solar Rewards Community program by Xcel, allows people who aren't able to install solar panels on their own properties -- because they are renters, or perhaps are situated so that their property doesn't receive direct sun -- to access photovoltaic power and the available rebates.

The program was made possible with passage of a bill introduced to the General Assembly in 2010 by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and signed into law in June of that year by then-Gov. Bill Ritter.

"I'm pleased that Boulder will be the first host of a solar garden as a result of the bill," Levy said Thursday. "I hope there will be more to come as our communities will benefit from them."

The Cowdery Meadows array will consist of ground-mounted panels installed by Clean Energy Collective, a solar provider originally based in Carbondale but which is moving its offices to Boulder. Clean Energy Collective will be installing seven more arrays throughout Xcel's service area over the next 75 days.

"It's great that this is where we're breaking ground, that this is where the first community solar garden is going in under the solar Xcel program," said CEC chief operating officer Tom Sweeney.

"This is what Claire Levy was striving for. Those efforts are starting to pay off now. We're very excited to be the developer. We couldn't be more thrilled."

The Solar Rewards Community program was created in response to Levy's House Bill 10-1342. Under that initiative, any Xcel customer can purchase solar panels in the shared array, then receive credits directly on their Xcel electricity bill for the power produced.

"Obviously, this is a program that's very important to us," said Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz. "It's to serve that niche of customers who, for whatever reason, can't put solar panels on their home. It may be people who live behind a mountain or a tall building, or they're renters and don't own the property."

When Xcel opened up the process last August to accept applications for developers looking to build the solar gardens, within 30 minutes it received proposals to build three times the allowed capacity.

In that first round, Xcel approved 10 applications on a first-come, first-served basis for projects totaling 4.5 megawatts, with those projects ranging in size from 108 kilowatts to 500 kilowatts of generating capacity.

A second round of applications in 2012 was offered for another 4.5 megawatts, targeting proposals between 501 kilowatts and 2 megawatts, and three applicants in that second round were approved.

The utility will open bidding again this August, Stutz said, for another 9 megawatts of solar generation, again broken into two rounds. Once again, the first round will be for proposals up to 500 kilowatts, the second will target those ranging from 500 kilowatts to 2 megawatts.

As for the Boulder Cowdery Meadows Solar Array, Sweeney said, "The 500 kilowatts is large enough to service approximately 100 average-sized homes, and we are going to provide 5 percent of the capacity to low-income families, so that will benefit somewhere between 10 and 15 low-income families in the city of Boulder."

The 5 percent dedication of capacity to low-income families is being arranged through a partnership with Boulder Housing Partners. The facility's remaining capacity will be sold to residential, commercial and government users.

Sweeney also said that Clean Energy Collective is relocating from Carbondale to Boulder. The move is already under way and should be complete by March 1. He called Boulder "the logical place" to locate his business, both in terms of the types of employees who would be available here, as well as for other business-related purposes.

At the end of January, CEC had 11 employees. Now it has 22, and Sweeney believes by the end of June it will have about 40, with "95 percent" of his staff working from the Boulder office, located at 3005 Center Green Court.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.