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Archive for the ‘solar’ Category

Austin City Council adopted a resolution yesterday to direct $500,000 of Austin Energy’s fiscal year 2018 budget to prove solar to “multi-family affordable housing, low-income residents, renters, and non-profits.”  Austin Energy staff agree that this goal is achievable and have committed to develop programs to serve these customers.  Per the resolution, staff will report back to Council in February on progress made toward achieving this goal.

Expanding access to solar for low-income residents is the next generation of distributed solar policy.   As solar prices have dropped significantly and solar financing has become widely available, solar adoption among middle-income residents has increased.  But it is still difficult for low-income residents and renters to take advantage of these opportunities in Austin.

There are several barriers to adopting solar with these groups of customers.  Renters lack control over the decision and landlords often see no reason to invest in solar to reduce bills for tenants.  Low-income residents are more likely to lack access to credit, or sufficient savings to buy solar.  And multi-family properties require different billing arrangements than single family homes.

Affordable housing developed by Foundation Communities has been the one big exception to this deficit of solar for low-income residents in Austin.  The non-profit boasts 720 kilowatts of solar across many of its Austin properties.  Most of these installations are used to supply energy for common areas, or are at properties where Foundation Communities pays all bills for its tenants.

Foundation Communities Homestead Oaks Apartments in south Austin is the one example where the organization uses solar to reduce the bills of each of its 140 tenants.  Unfortunately, Austin Energy’s billing policy required that each unit have its own, independent solar array.  Instead of one big solar installation on the roof, there are 140 installations, each with its own production meter.  This drove up the cost by 15-20%, resulting in a large area of wall being filled with meters, and made the job more complicated.  It’s not an attractive model.

What is the solution?  Shared solar – similar to virtual net metering that exists in many other states.  Austin Energy needs to update its billing system to allow Value of Solar production credits (Austin Energy’s alternative to net metering) from a single solar array to be divided among multiple customer accounts.  Austin Energy has committed to making this change by September 2018.

The Shared Solar billing solution is just the start.  Much more will be needed to make solar accessible to low-income residents and renters.  Austin Energy could offer a higher residential solar rebate for installations on affordable housing properties where solar is used to benefit the individual residences (such as at the Homestead property).  The utility already offers a somewhat higher solar incentive for nonprofits with commercial customer accounts, but these is currently no such offer for residential accounts for multifamily housing.

Another option would be to implement a program similar to CPS Energy’s Solar Host program.  This program allows residents to benefit from rooftop solar without making any investment.  The utility contracts with a solar developer who installs solar on customer rooftops.  The utility pays the solar developer a set rate per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, and each participating customer receives a bill credit for each kilowatt-hour produced on their roof.  Essentially, the customer is renting their roof space.  The bill credits aren’t as high as if the customer owned the solar installation, but it requires no investment on their part, making solar accessible to low-income customers.

Implementing an on-bill repayment program could expand access to solar for renters.  This would tie a solar loan to a particular customer meter, as opposed to the customer themselves.   When one tenant moves out and another moves in, both the repayment of the loan and the bill credits from solar production transfer to the new tenant.  Ideally, such a program would ensure that average annual bill credits exceed annual loan repayment, meaning that a customer’s energy bill would not increase.

Buying down the community solar rate for low-income customers would also help renters.  Austin Energy is considering donating solar installations to affordable housing properties.  That’s how the Guadalupe-Saldana Net Zero Subdivision was able to incorporate solar.  Public Citizen fully supports this, but recognizes that this solution will always be limited by available funding.

The Austin City Council resolution was sponsored by Council Member Greg Casar and co-sponsored by Council Members Leslie Pool, Delia Garza, and Pio Renteria.  They were joined in support by Council Members Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Ora Houston, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo, and Mayor Steve Adler.  Public Citizen applauds City Council and Austin Energy for embracing this next step in local solar development in Austin and looks forward to engaging with staff and other stakeholders to make this effort a success.

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El Paso Electric (EPE) – which is a for-profit company with a monopoly in the El Paso area – is seeking higher rates for the utility’s west Texas customers and launching another attack on solar customers. Despite increasing rates last year, the utility wants to collect an additional $42.5 million each year from its customers. Under the new proposal, EPE’s customers would face an overall 8.7 percent increase, amounting to $8.25 per month for the average residential customer. Solar customers would be hit even harder under the proposal, which an average bill increase of $14.09 per month.

Under EPE’s proposal, residential customers with solar would be subject to demand charges, which factors in the customers maximum demand for electricity at a single point in time. Demand charges are almost never used for residential customers because they are complex and can lead to significant fluctuations in bills.  Demand charges also make it very difficult for customers to take action to control their bills.  Solar customers would also be subject to time-of-use rates, which means electricity rates are different based on the time and day of the week.  While time-of-use rates can be a good tool, there is no justification for forcing them on customers with solar, but not other customers.

The 2017 utility tries to justify its discrimination against solar customers by using the false “cost-shift” argument. EPE plans to put the solar customers in a special class to “establish a fair rate structure that reflects the cost to serve each customer class.” To put it simply, EPE and other utilities are using the false argument that solar customers do not pay their fair share of grid-upkeep costs. This has been proven to be a false assumption by numerous studies conducted to calculate the value of solar. The improper allocation of costs to solar energy users will reduce the number of people willing to invest in solar and will leave current customers with no way to recover their costs.

EPE’s persistence in targeting solar customers has raised concerns. Several solar industry and advocacy groups, including The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and Eco El Paso are going to fight the proposal at the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) . Public Citizen is supporting these efforts by pushing the City of El Paso to make fighting the unfair solar fees and preventing the attack on solar a priority.

If you live in El Paso, take a minute to email the city to voice your opposition to the proposed unfair rates for solar customers.

“Demand charges found unreceptive audiences among regulators in 2016, and last year, Texas residents clearly rejected El Paso Electric’s same drastic and unprecedented rate design that punishes solar customers,” says TASC spokesperson Amy Heart. Senator José Rodríguez also issued a strong statement in opposition to the proposal:

I’m disappointed that El Paso Electric insists on discouraging people from installing solar on their homes. The electric company once again wants to single out solar customers by increasing their rates at least two times the amount of their non-solar neighbors. Solar customers will no longer be able to save on their electric bills, which was the reason they installed solar panels in the first place…I strongly believe these anti-solar proposals contradict the intent of Senate Bill 1910, which I passed in 2011 to authorize solar net metering in El Paso Electric’s service territory.

Fortunately for solar customers and non-solar customers alike, the evidence clearly shows that solar customers are contributing at least as much value as they get from the grid. A recent report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center evaluated 16 “value of solar” studies, and all but a couple that were conducted by utilities showed that the value of energy solar customers contribute to the system is higher than the retail rate they offset with net metering.

If you live in El Paso, help us and Eco El Paso fight back by sending an email to the El Paso City Council.

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Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

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After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

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A rate case is fundamentally about determining how much money an electric utility needs to collect from ratepayers to pay for expenses (and make some return on investment), how those expenses will be divided among the different customer classes (residential, commercial, industrial), and how customers in those different rate classes will be billed.  It’s probably obvious that these decisions can impact affordability and equity among customers.  Rate cases can also have significant environmental impacts though.

The Austin Energy rate case is an opportunity to make changes that can allow the utility to transition away from fossil fuels and towards greater reliance on clean energy solutions, including solar energy at homes and businesses, energy efficiency, energy storage and demand response (temporarily reducing usage when energy demand and prices spike).  What the utility spends money on, what programs are offered, and how rates are designed have profound impacts on climate change, air quality, water pollution, water use, land use – all of which impact society in a variety of ways, including public health and vulnerability to natural disasters.  So, it might sound boring at first, but if you care about the environment or social equity, you should care about how your electric utility is doing business.

What we’re advocating for:

  • 2009-08-21-fayette

    Fayette Power Project

    Budget to allow Austin Energy’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire.  It is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions (and over 28% of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors).  It’s also a major source of other air pollution that causes and worsens respiratory diseases (sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides – which contributes to ground level ozone formation) and cause neurological disorders mercury.  And it requires over 5 billion gallons of water to operate.  The latest adopted plan for Austin Energy calls for the retirement of the utility’s portion of Fayette by 2023, and Austin Energy staff say its remaining debt associated with the plant must be paid off before it can be retired.  The plan calls for that money to be collected in a dedicated fund through annual budgeting, but that isn’t happening, putting the retirement plan at risk.  Please use our action page to email City Council about budgeting to retire Fayette.

  • Maintain residential rates that encourage energy conservation and allow thrifty customers to keep their bills low.  Austin Energy has proposed to increase electric rates for those who use the least energy and reduce them for those who use the most.  For those trying to reduce their electric usage for environmental reasons or because their household budgets are strained, Austin Energy’s proposal will increase bills.  Austin Energy’s proposal will also make it more difficult to project from year to year how higher much summer rates will be from winter rates.  Both of these changes would reduce the incentive to conserve energy and invest in energy efficiency upgrade.  And these changes were proposed despite a study that Austin Energy commissioned that said that the existing rate structure is succeeding in encouraging conservation.  These proposed changes to how residential customers are billed would be a step backwards.
  • LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation - Meridian Solar

    LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation – Meridian Solar

    Adopt a policy to fairly compensate businesses for energy they produce from solar energy systems.  The City Council has adopted goals solar energy on homes and businesses, but Austin Energy’s current policy doesn’t include any way for most commercial customers to receive compensation for the energy they provide to the utility.  Incentives have temporarily filled that gap, but they are coming to an end.  The value of solar (VoS) rate is used to provide bill credits to residential customers, based on the calculated value of local distributed solar energy.  The same method should be used to compensate commercial customers.  Making this policy change will help grow solar adoption, while shifting away from incentives.

  • Ensure that enough money is collected to fully fund energy efficiency, solar energy and demand response programs.  Helping customers reduce their electric bills by making energy efficiency improvement or install solar energy systems doesn’t just benefit those customers who participate in those programs, it benefits all customers by allowing the utility to avoid purchasing expensive power that would drive all of our bills up.  The Energy Efficiency Services fee is used to collect money for this purpose.  With more people moving to Austin all the time, Austin Energy needs to ensure that budgets are set to match the need for local energy improvements.

Public Citizen and Sierra Club jointly participated in the Austin Energy rate case over the past several months, in an effort to push the utility to make environmentally sound decisions about both spending and billing customers.  That was just a warm-up for the real decision-making process though.  Because Austin Energy is owned by the city of Austin, the Austin City Council will make the final decisions about the rate case.  That’s where you come in.  City Council members, including Mayor Adler, need to hear from Austin Energy customers.  There will be a public hearing on Thursday, August 25th at 4:00 p.m. at City Hall.  Meet at 3:00 p.m. for a rally to support fair rates that meet Austin’s environmental goals.

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Solar: The Future of Energy

Solar energy is now more affordable than fossil fuels, even without accounting for the costs to the environment and public health. While creating electricity from solar energy has significantly dropped in price, the cost of producing electricity from coal has increased many places in the world, including the U.S. As a result the solar industry is rapidly expanding.

The cost to install solar is 73 percent lower than prices it was ten years ago, and it is becoming ever more affordable for both homeowners and businesses to install solar. Renewable power capacity has made up more than half of all global additions to the power market each year since 2013. In the United States, solar energy supplied 29.5 percent of all new electricity generation in 2015, and outpaced natural gas-fired generation additions for the first time.  The U.S. market for solar is expected to double in 2016 and here in Texas, wind and solar are each projected to add more capacity than natural gas in 2016.  Longer-term worldwide forecasts are also positive.  The 2015 IEA World Energy Outlook predicts 26 percent of all power will come from renewable energy by 2020 and Bloomberg predicts that 35 percent of all new power capacity worldwide over the next 25 years will come from solar. It is clear that renewable energy will make up a large portion of the energy sector in the near future.

US solar by year - SEIA

The success of the solar industry is good news for environmental reasons, but also for economic development.  Already there are 208,859 solar jobs nationwide. Texas is one of the top ten states, with 7,030 solar jobs in 2015.

Census 2015 found that the industry continues to exceed growth expectations, adding workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy and accounting for 1.2% of all jobs created in the U.S. over the past year.

Strong growth in solar jobs is projected to continue. Surveyed solar industry employers in the U.S. expect solar jobs to increase by 14.7%, or 239,625 workers, in 2016. A report from the University of California shows that if 20 percent of U.S. energy came from renewable sources by 2020 20 percent and between 101,630 and 154,480 additional energy jobs would be created, compared to continuing with the current energy mix.

Graph from Solar Foundation

Graph from Solar Foundation

In 2015, the world’s largest solar power plant was finished in California after a company obtained a $1.5 billion loan from the government. The Desert Sunlight solar project created 440 construction jobs in the process, provides power to 160,000 homes, and expects a profit of 5-6 billion annually. A combination of large-scale solar projects and increased adoption of distributed solar at homes and businesses will keep solar jobs growing.

The coal, oil and gas industries are watching worriedly as their industries lose market share. Separate from the threat of renewable energy, record low oil prices in 2015 led to a loss of over 233,000 jobs in the oil and gas industries globally. The coal industry is experiencing a similar loss of profit, as earnings fell 25 percent in 2015 and coal mining jobs in the United States decreased by 4,000 between 2008 and 2013.  Coal industry losses are more directly attributable to environmental regulations, which make burning coal more costly and thereby encourage the shift to renewable energy.

Instead of embracing the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, one that we desperately need for the sake of the planet and public health, as an opportunity for economic growth and job creation, conservatives with a stake in oil and gas are doing everything in their power to slow the rise of solar.

With the job losses in the fossil fuel industry and the harmful consequences for our planet, it simply doesn’t make sense for global subsidies to fossil fuel companies to reach close to 500 billion annually. Not only is it a waste of money to prop up the fossil fuel industry instead of investing in profit-making solar projects, but fossil fuel companies and the Koch brothers use those subsidies to mount campaigns to block the widespread adoption of solar, and nowhere is it more evident than in Florida.

The Sunshine State ranks just 16th in solar production despite its high capacity to generate solar power because fossil fuel companies have worked to prevent the solar from gaining ground. Fossil fuels maintain a monopoly on utility companies, lobby for the state to put anti-solar policies in place and discourage solar through preventing companies and residences from selling excess power from solar panels and forcing those with solar panels to pay special fees on their utility bill. Therefore, most of Florida’s electricity, 84 percent, comes from gas and coal. It’s a losing war that the fossil fuel companies are waging though. Fossil fuel companies are fighting green energy tooth and nail, but the market trends are clear, and solar is ever expanding.

One of the most important victories for solar and wind was the extension of the solar energy investment tax credit through 2019. This is going to be very important in spurring on expansion of the solar industry as residences and commercial businesses will continue to get the 30 percent tax credit on solar energy projects, which was set to expire at the end of 2016. Bloomberg Finance predicts that because of the tax credit’s extension more “solar power will be installed over the next five years…than the total installed in history up to the end of last year.” Renewable energy is going to have the fossil fuel industry running for the hills.

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2015-10-15 Austin City CouncilThe Austin City Council voted today to approve an additional 100 to 150 megawatts of solar energy projects for Austin Energy for 2016 and directed Austin Energy to bring another 150 megawatts online by 2019. Together with the projects approved on October 1, Council has given the go-ahead for between 400 and 450 megawatts of new solar energy to be completed by the end of 2016.

At prices reported around 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, these solar energy projects are some of the cheapest ever reported. The prices will be fixed for contract periods of between 15 and 25 years.

This is a huge win for Austin Energy customers and the environment. It comes thanks to the dedicated efforts of many Austin residents and collaboration with our partners at the SEED Coalition, Climate Buddies, Texas Drought Project, Clean Water Action, the Faith Energy Action Team and many others.  We no longer have to choose between clean energy and saving money. The Council has made a decision that will keep bills low for years to come.

“When Warren Buffett received record-low solar prices, he proclaimed the victory to the world. Austin Energy received bid that are just as competitive, making this a golden opportunity,” said Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition. “Mayor Adler and the City Council have taken a financially sound path.”

Austin Energy’s solar purchases also represent a significant step toward achieving the climate protection goals adopted by the City Council, which include achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the entire Austin community by no later than 2050 and eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions from Austin Energy controlled sources by 2030.

“Our best scientists are sounding dire warnings about the imminent possibility that climate change will accelerate in the next few years. We need to do everything possible to head of the possibility of runaway climate change,” said Jere Lock of the Texas Drought Project. “Action taken by City Council today are a step in the right direction.”

“400 megawatts of solar will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 620,000 metric tons, which is over 11% of all emissions from Austin Energy. That is significant,” ” said Joep Meijer of Climate Buddies. “Solar will also allow Austin Energy to use its expensive gas plants less, saving customers money and reduce local air pollution.”

Although it runs less than 5% of the time, Austin Energy’s natural gas-fired Decker Creek Power Station is a significant source of location air pollution in Austin and is located right next to neighborhoods and schools in East Austin.  Because it is so old and inefficient, that plant is only turned on when high demand for electricity drives up prices.  The solar farms approved by the City Council will produce large amounts of energy when electricity demand is high on hot afternoons, so this offers Austin Energy an opportunity to retire the Decker plant.  In addition to being a major source of air pollution, the plant loses money most years, according to Austin Energy’s own data.

The increased use of solar energy will also protect and preserve Texas’s limited water resources.

“Austin’s decision to go big on solar is great news for our state’s water resources. Unlike solar, gas and coal plants require massive amounts of water to operate,” said David Foster of Clean Water Action. The extraction of natural gas through fracking has been proven to contaminate groundwater, and coal plants create millions of pounds of toxic coal ash each year, much of which finds its way into our water.”

The Austin City Council have made a great decision that brings Austin Energy closer to meeting the goal of eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants by 2030.  This process took eight months to complete and required two different Council resolutions before proposals were voted on in October.  Both of those resolutions were sponsored by Council Member Delia Garza and co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool, Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen.  The solar contracts approved today were also supported by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ora Houston.  Please send the Austin City Council members who voted “yes” an email to thank them for embracing solar energy.

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The Austin City Council voted 9-2 today to authorize Austin Energy to enter into contracts for up to 300 megawatts (MW) of new solar energy.  This decision comes as a result of the generation planning process that began in February 2014 and has included numerous studies, briefings, public hearings, and recommendations from citizen advisory groups and Austin Energy.  Those voting in support were Mayor Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo and Council Members Garza, Pool, Casar, Kitchen, Gallo, Renteria and Houston.Go Green to Save Some Green - Affordable Solar for AustinAs consumer advocates, we cheer this wise decision by the Austin City Council because these solar contracts will provide energy at affordable rates for all Austin Energy customers.  While the utility will pay slightly more for this energy in the first few years than it would if it just purchased energy from the market, that dynamic will be short-lived and these solar contracts will offer more affordable rates than market purchases for most of the contract periods.  Solar contracts can be for up to 25 years and are at a fixed price of less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, offering an excellent opportunity to keep prices low and predictable for customers.

This addition of solar energy will bring the city and its electric utility closer to achieving the climate protection goals that Council has adopted.  Those goals are to achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or earlier, if possible and to make all Austin Energy-controlled electric generating assets carbon-free by 2030.  The later goal will require retirement of the utility’s coal-fired Fayette Power Project and the natural gas-fired generators at the Decker Creek Power Station (Austin’s single largest source of air pollution) and the Sand Hill Energy Center.  In order to protect customers against fluctuating prices in the electricity market, Austin Energy will need new carbon-free energy sources to replace those coal and natural gas-fired power plants.  These new solar contracts will help enable that transition.

Even before Austin Energy begins retirement of its fossil fuel fleet, these new solar farms will displace dirty energy from the Texas electric grid.  Because they have no fuel cost, solar farms will take the place of the most inefficient (and most polluting) natural gas plants that currently provide Texas electric consumers with energy when demand is high in the afternoons and early evenings.  By placing solar installations in sunny west Texas, the utility (and its customers) will benefit from high energy production that will continue even as solar intensity is starting to decline in central Texas.

Austin Energy and other utilities have been able to obtain exceptionally low prices for solar contracts recently because solar companies are eager to complete projects before the impending decline of the federal solar investment tax credit from 30% to 10% for commercial projects at the end of 2016.  Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that development of new utility-scale solar projects will decline from a high of over 11 gigawatts (GW) in 2016 to just over 3 GW in 2017.  Installations are projected to slowly increase after 2017, but Bloomberg doesn’t project a return to the boom levels we are seeing now and will continue to see through 2016.

2015-09-15 Bloomberg - Utility-scale solar build forecast with and without ITC extension

This boom is exciting, but it means that some proposed projects won’t be able to be completed by the end of 2016.  Several companies, including First Solar are running out of capacity to produce enough solar panels to keep up with demand.  That’s great for solar manufacturers to have, but it means that utilities wanting to benefit from low prices need to get contracts signed right away.

The Austin City Council also voted today to postpone authorization for up to another 350 MW of solar energy until October 15 to give Austin Energy staff additional time to negotiate more favorable prices on those contracts.  Although the prices for those contracts are already competitive, they are closer to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour and can likely be negotiated to closer to the first batch of contracts that was authorized today.  That will result in additional savings in the years to come.  Just as no savvy consumer walks on to a car lot and pays sticker price, utilities can and should use proposed energy prices as a starting point for negotiations.  We applaud the City Council for acting on the most affordable contracts now and for employing this strategy to get the best possible deals on the second batch of solar contracts.

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IMG_4986This weekend, Governor Abbott signed a bill into law that establishes solar rights for a group of people who have sometimes been banned from installing solar on their homes.

Right now, any developer can chose to ban or severely restrict the installation of solar panels in communities that are still in the development phase.  In some cases, the development period stretches on for many years because the developments are large, and continually expanding.  This practice traps homeowners under developer control, and in some cases leaves them unable to invest in affordable solar power for their homes.

Senate Bill 1626 by Senator Rodriquez, sponsored in the House by Representative Dukes, states that only smaller developments with 50 homes or fewer can ban or restrict solar.

We would have liked to establish solar rights for all homeowners, but this bill is a great step forward and we appreciate the work put into it by Representative Dukes, Senator Rodriguez, their staffs, the Texas Association of Builders, and the Texas Solar Power Association.

The Texas Association of Builders supported SB 1626 and its House companion HB 3539 because most developers already allow solar installations. As solar has become more mainstream, developers have realized that solar not only doesn’t hurt home sales – it can help actually them.  That’s why some developers now offer solar as an option. It’s the outliers, who are unnecessarily restricting homeowners’ rights that this change in law will address.

There are people in Texas who purchased their homes over a decade ago and still haven’t been allowed to install solar systems because their developments are still being expanded.  Solar panels are silent, non-polluting and no less attractive than many other features of a home or people’s cars parked in their driveways. Everyone should have the right to take advantage of the free fuel from the sun.

The new law will take effect on September 1, 2015.

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CommunitySolar_v3eCommunity solar at Austin Energy is one step closer to being a reality. After months of negotiations, Austin Energy signed a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with PowerFin Partners for a solar farm of up to 3.2 megawatts that is to be the first stage of the utility’s planned community solar program. The east Austin site selected by Austin Energy for the project offers some challenges, which is why the negotiations took some time, but now the project can begin. Local solar installers at Native and Greenbelt Solar will do the installation work, when the time comes.

Community solar is eagerly awaited by environmental and affordability advocates because it has the potential to fill a gaps in Austin Energy’s existing solar programs. These gaps are caused by a couple primary factors.

The first gap is low-income residents. While solar costs have dropped dramatically in recent years and solar is undoubtedly a good long-term investment, it still requires either an up-front investment or the credit worthiness to secure a loan or lease. Low-income residents will almost certainly not have cash on hand to buy a solar system and are also much less likely to qualify for a loan or lease because of poor credit scores and/or insufficient income. If the program is structured properly, community solar can provide affordable energy at a fixed rate for decades.

The second gap is people whose homes aren’t suitable for solar. There are many factors that can make a home unsuitable for solar. Many homes have little roof space that is facing south or west, the best orientation for solar. Other homes are shaded by trees or even other buildings. Trees provide cooling benefits in hot Texas summers, increase property values, clean our air, and make our streets and communities more livable, so cutting them down just to make way for solar isn’t a good option. Community solar is a much better solution.

Austin Energy has yet to announce how the community solar program will be structured. Community solar projects across the country come in many forms. Some offer customers the opportunity to purchase or lease a portion of a system. Others offer subscriptions to the energy produced from a portion of the system, at a fixed cost. Whatever program design Austin Energy comes up with, hopefully it will reflect the benefits of solar – low costs and fixed pricing.

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Save EnergyEnergy efficiency upgrades are widely accepted to be the cheapest way to meet energy needs, yet many businesses don’t make such upgrades because of the up-front costs. That’s why the Texas Legislature passed a law in 2013 to make Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs for commercial properties possible in Texas.

PACE programs allow property owners to pay for energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation measures through low interest loans that are repaid through property tax bills. This mechanism spreads the cost of the upgrades out over time and reduces risk for the property owner because the loan is attached to the property, not the individual.

Until recently though, no PACE programs had been established in Texas. In March, Travis County became the first county in Texas to create a PACE program. The program will allow property owners to choose specific water conservation and energy saving improvements that fit each property’s individual needs.

Just how beneficial is the Texas PACE program? It helps in the local search of “finding the sweet spot in the public policy process where people, natural resources, and the economy are best served”, as Judge Eckhardt told Texas Government Insider. After all, the main goal of the Texas plan is to attain water protection, energy-efficiency developments, and renewable retrofits- all of which would be obtained through economical loans. Texas really is trying to do everything… big.

Keeping PACE in Texas made this first Texas PACE program possible by convening stakeholders to develop a toolkit for local governments to use when creating PACE programs. Not only should other counties follow Travis County, but they should also follow the other 30 states and District of Columbia that have employed PACE programs. With the help of passionate sponsors and volunteer stakeholders, any county can adapt the PACE program, just like Travis County did with its plethora of sponsors and 130 volunteers.

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Why Georgetown Ditched Fossil Fuel

Georgetown Renewables and Time

The following was written by Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas and published in Time on March 27th.

A decision such as that made by Georgetown might not be possible for other Texas utilities if SB931 passes.  Read the Time article below to see why Georgetown made this move.

Georgetown is a city of 54,000 just north of Austin known for beautiful Victorian-era architecture around our historic courthouse square. Founded in 1848, we are home to Southwestern University, a small liberal arts college.

The City of Georgetown recently announced that our municipal electric utility will move to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2017. That probably caught some folks by surprise. A town in the middle of a state that recently sported oil derricks on its license plates may not be where you’d expect to see leaders move to clean solar and wind generation.

No, environmental zealots have not taken over our city council, and we’re not trying to make a statement about fracking or climate change. Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability. (more…)

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IMG_0129The cost of solar energy has dropped so much that the Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC), the nation’s largest electric cooperative, which serves a large area to the west of Austin, has announced a plan to significantly expand investment in this clean, affordable energy source.

The measures adopted will encourage development of both large- and small-scale renewable energy, primarily solar.  For large-scale developments, the co-op will work with its main power provider, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), to continue expanding the diversity of its generation portfolio with the addition of wind and solar resources.  Utility-scale solar prices are now lower than electric prices from natural gas-fired power plants, with the added benefit of being fixed in price for 25-30 years.

Locally, the co-op will also build 30 megawatts of medium-sized solar installations, to be strategically placed at distribution stations and in locations near its biggest customers.  Some of these installations will be open member subscription through a new community solar program.

The co-op will also establish an on-bill financing program that will provide low-interest loans to assist customers with the up-front cost of on-site renewable (primarily solar) energy projects.

The strategies adopted are intended to help the co-op reach its 30 percent renewable energy goal and expand the use of distributed local solar while maintaining affordable rates.

“This is a big victory for the customers of PEC who began organizing to get solar and wind power programs 8 years ago,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, PEC member and director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “As a result of the efforts of its owner members, and the strong leadership of its board and executives, the co-op has developed the largest commitment to solar energy of any co-op in the country.”

PEC places a strong emphasis on reliability, providing excellent member service and keeping rates low.  Favorable renewable energy prices and a changing energy market that increasingly includes customer adoption of solar allow the co-op to meet all of these goals at once.  The co-op also just recently reduced electric rates for customers.

As water constraints continue in Central Texas, transitioning to renewable energy sources will help preserve precious water resources for domestic consumption that are currently allocated for energy production.  Wind and solar are drought-proof energy sources that require little or no water to operate.

PEC’s move to embrace solar puts the co-op in good company.  The City of Georgetown recently announced a large new solar contract that would help the city be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2015.

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Barilla Solar Project - Photo from First Solar

Barilla Solar Project – Photo from First Solar

The City of Georgetown announced yesterday that it will provide the entire city with clean, affordable renewable energy by 2017. This is thanks to new contract with Sun Edison to provide 150 megawatts of solar energy by the end of 2016 and the City’s existing wind energy contracts.

The primary reason cited by the City for choosing 100% renewable energy is to protect customers against volatile and rising fossil fuel energy costs and regulatory uncertainties. A recent Public Citizen report shows this is a wise financial move. That report demonstrates that shifting from coal power to alternative energy sources could result in significant savings for electric utilities and their customers. The switch will also save the Texas public in pollution-related health care costs and economic losses due to premature mortality.

Wind and solar are clean, safe, and financially sound energy options. As our report shows, it’s no longer clean energy that’s expensive. Now it’s coal that is too costly to continue.

Georgetown’s 25-year contract with Sun Edison will protect its ratepayers from natural gas price spikes and from costs associated with old coal plants. Wind and solar energy prices are predictable and affordable because they have no fuel costs and don’t pollute.

Switching to renewable energy also reduces water use. As water scarcity continues in Texas, drought-proof energy sources are increasingly important. Wind power requires no water and solar only uses a small fraction of what fossil fuel energy sources use. Water has been a limiting factor for energy production for fossil fuel generators and will likely continue to be in the future.

If more Texas cities follow Georgetown’s lead, our state will be in a better positions to tackle the challenges of reduced water supplies, unhealthy air pollution, and fluctuating fossil fuel prices. This is an exciting time, because utilities no longer have to choose between clean energy and affordable energy – they are one in the same.

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Solarize Wells Branch

Solar fever is spreading in the Austin area!  A passionate group of solar supporters is working to bring more solar to Wells Branch.

Solarize Wells BranchIt all started with a solar fair on October 28.  A couple passionate Wells Branch residents put together a great event with speakers and tabling by local solar companies, Austin Energy and Oncor (Wells Branch is split between the Austin Energy and Oncor service areas).  About 200 people from the community showed up to learn more about solar.  As one of the speakers, I provided some basic information and introduced the solarize concept – where members of a community work together to get educated about solar and pool their buying power to contract for a discount with a solar company.

Now, an enthusiastic group of Wells Branch residents have created the Solarize Wells Branch group.  They’ve already put out a request for proposals from solar installations companies.  They’re working to get residents signed up to participate in the program.

We talk a lot about policy solutions for improving the environment and human health, but direct individual action is really important too.  Going solar saves water, reduces air pollution, helps fight climate change and will save you money.  If you live in Wells Branch or a nearby neighborhood, check out the Solarize Wells Branch flier and the Solarize Wells Branch website for lots more detailed info.  Enrolling will get you connected with the organizers, who will help get your questions answered.  Don’t worry though – this doesn’t in any way commit you to actually purchasing a solar installation.

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The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released a report yesterday titled “ERCOT Analysis of the Impacts of the Clean Power Plan” regarding the costs, benefits, and concerns of Texas’ compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan, put forth by the EPA on June 2, 2014, would set new national carbon pollution standards, in an effort to combat the effects of climate change and air pollution. ERCOT, which operates the electric grid of Texas and manages the deregulated market for 75 percent of the state, concluded that there are reliability concerns and high costs associated with the changes necessary for the electric grid infrastructure and the shift to alternative low-carbon energy sources.

Environmental advocacy organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and Public Citizen have begun commenting on this report, which they claim overstates the costs of compliance while understating the benefits of solar and energy efficiency. Not only does ERCOT’s report fail to take into account the affordability of solar energy and energy efficiency, it also neglects the steps that electric utility companies have already taken towards clean energy. Various electric utilities in Texas have been retiring inefficient coal plants and gas units in favor of adopting solar and wind energy projects. ERCOT’s own monthly interconnection report shows that more than 30,000 MW of solar and wind projects are in development stages. Texas’ energy storage and demand response capacities are also missing in the report. These two resources provide real-time reactive power when there is turbulence in wind and solar inputs, which would maintain a reliable power grid as Texas transitions to renewable energies.

The Clean Power Plan is a crucial step in reducing climate pollution and our dependency on dirty coal and other fossil fuels. The benefits of clean and affordable energy in Texas cannot be overstated. ERCOT should take the time to reevaluate the role of renewable energies in Texas’ future.

Download our presentation on our view of the plan here update New ERCOT Cost Estimates 

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