AUSTIN – A new report ranks Austin 16th in the nation for the amount of solar installed, and provides a first-of-its-kind comparative look at the growth of solar in major American cities. The report comes on the heels of a historic deal approved by City Council to add an additional 150 megawatts of solar energy from a west Texas solar farm. With the city close to meeting its renewable energy goals, a new city task force will convene starting next week to consider raising the goals.
“Solar power is booming across the country and Austin is at the forefront,” said Metzger. “Austin’s leadership in tapping in to this clean energy source means the sun is rising for a solar future,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. By continuing to raise the bar, we can make sure Austin continues to harvests solar’s benefits, including cleaner air and new clean-tech jobs.”
The Environment Texas report, Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution, finds that San Antonio leads the state with 84 megawatts (MW) while Austin comes in second in Texas with 13 MW of solar within city limits. Austin Energy also generates solar power at a 30-MW solar facility in Webberville in eastern Travis County. Because this solar farm lies outside what are technically the city limits of Austin, the report did not include it in Austin’s solar total.
The report highlighted the benefits of solar energy, including:
- Solar energy avoids pollution—Pollution-free energy from the sun reduces air pollution that contributes to urban smog and global warming. It also helps save the massive amount of water that’s normally consumed during the cooling of fossil-fuel-burning power plants.
- Solar energy protects consumers— Since solar has no fuel costs, it can protect us from the rising cost of fossil fuels.
- Solar energy helps the economy— Texas has 4,100 solar jobs, growing by 28% since last year.
The city of Austin enacted a renewable electricity standard in 2011 that requires its municipal utility, Austin Energy, to get 35 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, including 200 MW from solar power. With this goal to drive them, in March, the Austin city council approved a deal with SunEdison to provide 150 MW of energy by building two west Texas solar farms. The deal comes with a historically low price for solar, comparable with current natural gas prices. On April 16, a new city council appointed task force will start meeting to consider changes to the city’s generation plan, including possibly doubling the solar goal.
“We should all be proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish at Austin Energy," said Austin Council Member Mike Martinez. "Reaching our renewable goals early with this latest Purchase Power Agreement is a great achievement at an amazing price, all while not affecting our utility rates. It is also an indicator that solar is becoming more and more affordable for the general public which will help us reach our current and future local/distributed goals even sooner.”
Austin Energy has also offered an array of solar financing options and incentives from which residents can choose. To help residential customers overcome the up-front costs of installing solar power, Austin Energy offers a solar rebate program that pays qualifying customers $1,250 per kilowatt of solar PV capacity installed and has partnered with Velocity Credit Union to provide a solar loan program that can lend customers up to $20,000. Austin Energy also offers a performance-based incentive for commercial and multi-family installations; this is a payment from the utility to the commercial or multi-family customer per kilowatt hour of solar power produced for up to 10 years.
Austin Energy is offering a “value-of-solar” tariff in place of net metering, which sets a fixed rate each year at which the utility will credit customers for the solar power they generate—this rate is based on energy savings and environmental benefits that are meant to quantify the value of solar power to the electricity grid and compensate solar producers accordingly. While the tariff does provide compensation to owners of solar energy systems, it lacks the long-term predictability of net metering and is unlikely to capture the environmental benefits of solar power.
The state Legislature has also taken some modest steps to promote solar. In 2011, a bill was passed to stop homeowners’ associations from interfering with the installation of solar panels and in 2013, the legislature approved a new program to help commercial property owners finance clean energy programs. Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing allows property owners to borrow money from a specially created fund for clean energy projects. The loan is paid off on property tax bills over a number of years, thus, future repayment of the loan is assured, even if the property changes hands.
“The sky’s the limit on solar energy. Austin is a shining example of solar leadership,” said Metzger. “But, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential to capture this pollution-free energy source. By committing to bold goals and expanding on the good policies we’ve adopted, we can take solar to the next level.”