Solar energy gains ground in Austin

Central Market completed installing more than 900 solar panels on the roof of its South Lamar Boulevard location in February.

Central Market completed installing more than 900 solar panels on the roof of its South Lamar Boulevard location in February.

A few initiatives are underway to get Austin closer to its goal of producing more renewable energy, including a $4.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative that Austin Energy, the city’s energy utility, began using in February.

The grant enables AE to begin piloting a program to test battery storage for solar energy by integrating a new storage system into the city’s distribution grid. Kurt Stogdill, manager for green building and sustainability for AE, said battery storage can help accommodate higher levels of local renewables such as solar energy.

“What [the grant] is enabling us to do is to be able to learn more about how to handle the technical issues related to working with storage … and how to make it work out from a cost-benefit perspective,” he said.[polldaddy poll=9358431]

The new grant is on top of efforts made in October, when Austin City Council directed AE 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. Council also voted in October to authorize AE to negotiate agreements for more solar projects. With all the initiatives that are planned, the city could have up to 626 megawatts of solar energy annually, AE spokesperson Carlos Cordova said. If delivered to customers, that amount could power more than 125,000 homes during peak hours.

Why solar?

The efforts to go solar align with council’s adoption in December 2014 of the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025. One of the plan’s goals is to make 55 percent of energy delivered to customers renewable energy, Cordova said. Since 2011, planned projects in Austin have aimed to establish more solar and wind energy capacity.

“When all these projects come online we’ll be at 50 percent renewable energy [capacity],” he said, noting that could occur by the end of 2016. “There’s no city of this size in the country that has that kind of energy.”

The price of solar energy—for the city and consumers—has continued to fall in recent years, but it is still relatively expensive, Cordova said. 

AE’s renewable generation portfolio includes 1,345 megawatts of wind energy generated by projects as well as 626 megawatts of solar and nearly 112 megawatts of biomass, which is methane gas that can be used to create steam to be used as energy. Solar is the area where the city has the most new projects, Cordova said.

“People see solar as the next frontier,” Cordova said.

Solar in Southwest Austin

A few companies in Southwest Austin have had solar projects approved in the past few years, according to AE. These include Luby’s restaurant on Brodie Lane, NXP’s William Cannon Drive facility and Goodwill Industries of Texas on South First Street.

In late February, Central Market Westgate finished installing 920 photovoltaic, or PV, panels, which are reflective rectangular devices that capture and transmit solar energy. General Manager Scott Wheeler said the local natural grocery chain is working with AE to get the rooftop panels activated by mid-spring, he said.

The Southwest Austin location was a factor in why the store chose to go solar, Wheeler said, noting area customers are environmentally conscious.   

“There’s going to be some savings for us, and at the end of the day it’s the right thing to do for the environment and for our customers,” Wheeler said.

Solar energy gains ground in Austin

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 about $100,000 more than fractional metering would have.

Cordova said Austin Energy is developing a fractional metering pilot that would allow the utility to develop procedures and rates.


Solar panels are also visible in other residential areas in Southwest Austin.

Michael Brozgul, who lives in the Garrison Park neighborhood, said he added PV panels to his roof more than a year ago and worked with AE, Lighthouse Solar and Southwest Austin-based retailer TreeHouse to figure out an appropriate solar package for his home.

“I’ve been energy-independent for the last year and running, and in fact I’ve been overproducing roughly $300-$500 a month in energy,” he said. “I’m not worried about running my A/C all the time in the summer at a temperature that I like because I know that it’s green and it’s sustainable.”

AE provides power to solar customers on days when their power fails or there is too much cloud cover, he said. 

Brozgul financed his installation.

“Finance it if you’re going to be in your house for five to seven years, because that’s the return on investment for any solar package these days,” he said, adding the solar panels will increase the value of the home as well.

Brozgul said he pays about $200 per month now for his solar package.

Daniel Browning, a Maple Run neighborhood resident, had solar panels installed on his roof three years ago and said he chose to pay for them outright.

Some residents in the Southwest Austin area take advantage of solar energy by placing photovoltaic panels on their roof. Some residents in the Southwest Austin area take advantage of solar energy by placing photovoltaic panels on their roof.[/caption]

“I’m an economist. It made financial sense. The payback period was like three and-a-half years,” he said.

The panels require minimal maintenance—once a year or so, he said he sprays them off with a hose to get rid of pollen—and are insured.

“It’s great not having [much of] an electricity bill. It’s just one less thing that you have to pay for. … In summer our bill will get up to like $50,” he said.

Moving forward

Kaiba White is president of local nonprofit Solar Austin. She said some middle-income residents can now afford solar, which has led to broader distribution in the city, but many still cannot take advantage.

“The biggest chunk of those people [who cannot afford solar power]   are renters. We are a majority renter city,” she said.

Solar Austin currently has a recommendation before the consumer advisory task force that would benefit low-income renters because credits created from producing energy in a multifamily structure would be divided among tenants instead of wiring individual solar installations to each unit, White said. The nonprofit is also working on a resolution with the resource management commission to guide homes and multifamily properties toward being “solar-ready,” she said.

Battery storage is one opportunity that can be used for different outcomes, Stogdill said.

“One thing would be … taking power that was produced at a time when you didn’t need it and making it available at a time when you did,” he said, explaining power produced at noon can be stored in the battery and used at night. “The other is that the grid needs to remain stable or you start having some failures that occur that can cascade and cause wider-scale outages, so we need to maintain voltage levels at a very consistent basis. … You could use the storage to help support your voltage to avoid people having issues like lights flickering.”

There is not enough storage now to affect the city’s energy grid, he said.

To increase solar energy use, AE is looking to form partnerships with businesses and nonprofits that can put community solar projects on their properties—the city would pay them for leasing the site, Cordova said.

“More than 50 percent of [Austin] 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,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kara Nuzback


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