TOP STORY: Solar power options expanding in Katy area

Over the last few years, the Katy area has seen growth in solar power in both the industrial and residential sectors. Many area residents are interested in solar because of high energy costs associated with heating and cooling their homes, said Adam Landa, owner of Katy’s Polestar Solar.

The Katy area has between 89 and 95 percent sunny days per year, depending on the ZIP code. This makes for significant sun exposure, according to Google’s Project Sunroof solar calculator.

More solar power options coming to Katy areaLanda said his company has completed about 30 residential installations since opening in April. KT Solar Systems owner Mina Sebastianelli, who launched her company in May 2015, is also seeing her client base grow.

Sebastianelli said she founded her company because she wanted to install solar panels on her home but was unable to find anyone in the Katy area who offered the service.

“Early on, we had maybe one install a month in the Katy area,” she said. “Now, it’s one or two a week.”

KT Solar and Polestar Solar install solar power systems for residential and small-business clients. On the industrial side, Toshiba Mitsubishi-Electric Industrial Systems Corporation recently broke ground on a 45,000-square-foot facility in West Ten Business Park to manufacture power inverters that convert direct current from solar panels into alternating current for large solar farms.

The company is expected to begin operations in late 2017 and employ 75 people in the new facility. Meanwhile, Skybox Data Centers partnered with NRG to open a new data center with integrated solar located on Franz Road in Katy last year.

“NRG and Skybox were excited about the prospect of promoting alternative energy and sustainability within the data center ecosystem,” said Gordon Kellerman, Skybox’s vice president of leasing and marketing. “These computer environments at times can consume electricity equivalent to that of 1,000 homes. This particular tenant opted to procure 100 percent renewable power for their facility.”

More solar power options coming to Katy areaWhy the boom?

Some residents consider solar panels an investment in their home, Sebastianelli said. Landa estimated home values could increase an average of about 3 percent with solar panels installed.

“Solar is exempt when it comes to property taxes, so you don’t have to worry about extra property taxes,” he said.

For Mason Senior Apartments on North Mason Road, safety is also a consideration for using solar power. Property Manager Terry Schnitzer said the complex uses solar energy to ensure elevators are never out of service, which could otherwise trap tenants with limited mobility on upper floors.

Rachel Cornick, president of the Houston Renewable Energy Group, said federal tax incentives like the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit have helped make solar more affordable. Many energy companies want their clients to get solar and connect into the grid, leading them to pay homeowners for the excess electrical output their homes produce, she said.

Reliant, Green Mountain and TXU all have programs to buy excess solar production from homeowners in the Katy area, Sebastianelli said.

More solar power options coming to Katy areaFeasability of solar

Not all homes are prepared for solar panels. To verify if a home is a candidate for solar production, both KT Solar Systems and Polestar send out technicians to inspect the homes ahead of time, the businesses’ owners said.

A solar power system needs a steady stream of sunlight to remain economically viable, Landa said.

“One of the main things is trees and shading,” Landa said. “[There is not] really much of that in Katy because of the new development.”

Solar technicians examine a home’s overall condition, whether the roof can support the hardware, the home’s existing energy efficiency, and whether the roof is positioned for sufficient sun exposure, Sebastianelli said.

“Usually, customers will approach me, and the first thing they want to know is, ‘What is the size system that we need?’” she said. “It isn’t about square footage; it depends on home efficiency and home population.”

Families vary in their electrical usage, Sebastianelli said. For some residents, upgrades, such as resealing windows or switching to LED lightbulbs, will cause significant savings.

Installation may take between 30 to 45 days due to permitting requirements, Landa said. Once a solar system is installed, maintenance becomes more complicated if a battery backup is installed.

“The actual installation only takes one day, but the rest of it takes some time with permitting and [homeowners associations], and depending on where the house is located,” he said.

Cost of solar

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, costs for photovoltaic solar systems, including installation, can run between $12,000 and $22,000, nationally. Landa said panel systems in the Katy area that provide 100 percent of the consumer’s power can range from $25,000 to $30,000 due to higher energy consumption for heating and cooling than national averages.

Nonprofit organization Solarize Houston also works to negotiate group installation rates in the Greater Houston area.

“The savings were at least 15 percent and in some cases as much as 20 percent,” Solarize Houston co-founder Steve Krebs said.

Solar panels on a residential roof also increase the lifespan of the roof, Sebastianelli said. However, older or damaged roofs may need repairs or replacement prior to panel installation, she said.

“It’s true on composition roofs,” Krebs said. “The panels save wear and tear and shade the shingles.”

KT Solar Systems Project Manager Mike Masabb said equipment usually has a 25-year warranty. The panels are designed to withstand wind shear of up to 125 mph, and hail of up to 1 inch in diameter. Panels may break from human activity, such as being stepped on or being hit by rocks.

“Replacement panels usually cost about $250 to $300 plus labor,” he said.

Cornick said buyers should not dismiss solar because they are in a neighborhood with a homeowners’ association. A section of the Texas Property Code states, “A property owners’ association may not include or enforce a provision in a dedicatory instrument that prohibits or restricts a property owner from installing a solar energy device.”

Monthly energy savings with solar panels depends on the household,  Sebastianelli said. Factors, such as family size, the home’s age and insulation can affect energy costs, although Project Sunroof provides estimates for how long it may take to pay off a solar system that meets the approximate needs of a home.

Before installing solar panels on her own home, Cornick said she paid about $90 per month in energy bills. After the installation, her bill was about $20 in May.

Sebastianelli and Cornick advised that potential buyers should make a decision soon because the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit is reduced each year.

Additionally, Suniva, one of the nation’s largest producers of solar cells, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, citing low prices on competing solar panels manufactured in Asia. Both of these issues may affect the affordability of solar systems, Sebastianelli said.

“The main thing is just the fact that [homeowners] are going to save money. They’ll own [the system] for life and not have to pay electric for life,” Landa said.

More solar power options coming to Katy area