In October, Austin City Council directed the city’s electric utility, Austin Energy, to sign contracts for about $695 million for up to 300 megawatts annually of West Texas solar power. That purchase positions AE to become the largest user of solar power in Texas.
AE also kicked off a pilot program Feb. 1, using a $4.3 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy, that aims to integrate solar and other renewable energy storage into the city’s distribution grid.
These and other plans could result in 626 megawatts of solar energy annually, AE spokesperson Carlos Cordova said.
Kaiba White, president of nonprofit advocacy group Solar Austin, said solar energy has become more affordable in recent years, but it is still not in the price range of many residents.
“The biggest chunk of those people [who cannot afford solar power] are renters. We are a majority renter city,” she said.
Solar energy prices have fallen in recent years, which make it a more attractive option, but it is still relatively expensive, Cordova said.
Solar energy and affordability
AE customers can only use solar energy credits to lower their utility bills if the solar installation is on the same property as the electric meter—even at apartment complexes—and the solar installation must be wired to a solar production meter that is assigned to an individual customer.
In 2015, Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, planned to simplify its system by installing one large solar unit at Homestead Oaks Apartments on Slaughter Lane. It aimed to divide the solar energy credits evenly among its residents.
But Cordova said AE has no procedures in place for fractional metering, which would allow the utility to portion out solar energy generation from one or two large installations to any number of individuals.
Foundation Communities instead had to install a separate solar unit for each of the 140 apartments in the complex.
Sunshine Mathon, design and development director for Foundation Communities, said installation of the individual units at Homestead cost the nonprofit 15-20 percent, or about $100,000, more than fractional metering would have.
Mathon said Foundation Communities has three projects under construction, including Lakeline Station Apartments in Northwest Austin bordering Cedar Park and Cardinal Point Apartments near the intersection of RM 2222 and RM 620. Both complexes are slated to be ready for residents in 2017, he said.
In coordinating with a solar installation contractor for Lakeline, Mathon said, the developer had to decide whether to wire the complex for fractional metering at a cost of about $3,000, or for individual units similar to Homestead, which would cost about $30,000.
“We ended up deciding to assume and hope that fractional metering was going to be viable by the time we were ready to put solar in place,” he said.
If fractional metering is not an option, low-income residents will have to depend on traditional power, he said.
Foundation Communities’ goal is to help families be successful; green initiatives aid that goal by lowering residents’ utility costs, lowering the developer’s operating and maintenance costs, and creating healthier living spaces by mitigating substances that could cause asthma, Mathon said.
“The only way we will be able to give solar to our customers is to make fractional available,” Mathon said.
Cordova said AE is developing a fractional metering pilot program that would allow the utility to develop procedures and rates.
When the Moody Foundation awarded a grant to Northwest Austin-based nonprofit The Settlement Home for Children that would allow the nonprofit to install solar panels, the city was fully supportive, said Darcie DeShazo, executive director of The Settlement Home.
The nonprofit, which serves children who have been abused, neglected or suffered severe trauma, put the project out to bid and selected Northwest Austin-based solar energy supplier Circular Energy to complete the installation.
“Circular Energy has been great to work with,” DeShazo said.
Mayor Steve Adler signed a proclamation declaring Dec. 3, 2015—the day of the ribbon cutting for the solar panels—The Settlement Home for Children’s Energy Conservation Day.
But when it came time to get the system running, the city and the utility were not as responsive, DeShazo said.
“It’s been a war between the Circular Energy folks and the city and Austin Energy,” she said.
Jacob Huereca, operations director at The Settlement Home, said it was difficult to get inspectors from the city and the utility to show up. When they did appear, Huereca said, they would point out a reason not to connect the system and order The Settlement Home to fix the problem.
After the problem was fixed, the inspector would visit again and point out another problem, rather than pointing out all the problems in one visit, he said.
“It’s been a lot of red tape with the city,” Huereca said.
On March 3, when the solar energy system went live, AE shut power off at The Settlement Home without notifying anyone, DeShazo said.
Ultimately, DeShazo and Huereca said, the system will benefit the community and align with the nonprofit’s goal to make energy conservation a priority. Huereca said the nonprofit expects the system to offset $20,000 in costs per year.
“All this headache is going to be well worth it,” he said.
Cordova said the extra steps necessary to obtain solar power are not without reason. AE provides a large amount of oversight to ensure safety and proper performance and interconnection with the electric grid, assuring power quality and reliability, he said.
Every solar energy system requires an inspection, field testing and a thorough review of documentation, he said.
“Occasionally the demand for these services exceeds our resources, and there is a short lag time between job completion and the setting of the meter,” Cordova said. “However more often than not the delays are due to adjustments that need to be made ... to assure safety and performance.”
AE is taking action to make solar power more widely available. The utility is looking to form partnerships with businesses and nonprofits that can put community solar energy projects on their properties or roofs, Cordova said.
The business would host the project, and the city would pay it for leasing a site for community solar panels, he said.
“Community solar is a really good initiative because there are a lot of people in Austin,” he said. “More than 50 percent of residents live in apartments, so they can’t get a rebate for panels or enjoy the benefits of solar. But with a community solar farm you can be a subscriber of the community solar farm regardless of what part of Austin you live.”
Community solar power would allow residents in Southwest Austin or Northwest Austin to subscribe to a solar farm in Southeast Austin, he said.
Cordova said the community solar power model would allocate solar production to subscribers’ electric accounts in the form of a credit. The program is still in development, and the processes and billing system for it have not yet been configured, he said.
White said she hopes City Council will start requiring developers to make rooftop space on the southern or western side of buildings so they are solar installation-ready. She said maybe someday council would consider requiring developers to install solar units.
“This council has been quite progressive so far on solar power,” White said. “We definitely hope to see more action regarding local solar.”
Kelli Weldon contributed to this story.