South of Progreso and less than a mile from the shallow Rio Grande, $100,000 in solar panels gleam beside Moon Lake.
One would think the 64 panels comprising the massive 10-kilowatt residential system would have brought Ashley McAllen’s energy bills to their knees. However, in deregulated Texas, solar can still be a risky venture when even the likes of Green Mountain Energy aren’t required to buy solar-generated power back from homeowners.
Instead of seeing a 70- to 80-percent decline in his electricity bills for his 3,500 square-foot home, as McAllen first anticipated, he squeaks out a meager 10-percent savings.
“As soon as they found out I had solar panels, they slapped a meter that would not even go backward at all, which was totally illegal,” he complains.
A free-spinning meter is critical to solar users, since during the sunniest hours of the day — from about noon to 6 p.m. — an effective array will not only fill the house with power but pump what is not used back into the power grid.
It’s called net-metering. For McAllen it’s the difference between paying off his investment in about 15 years and, perhaps, ending his days still in debt to it.
Of course, neither McAllen’s electricity retailer, Green Mountain Energy, nor the company that controls the lines to his home, AEP, are required to buy McAllen’s excess solar electricity. So, for now, they just take it.
“AEP … they get paid on delivered power, however many kilowatts go into that house. That’s what they get paid by. They don’t care what goes back into the grid, what I produce and goes back in. They suck that up, that’s free to them,” McAllen said.
Green Mountain also has refused to pay.
“Green Mountain’s position is, ‘Well, we don’t care what you’re doing, but we’re not paying for power that comes back into the grid, either. We’re not paying you anything.’ And AEP’s not going to pay me anything. So effectively I get nothing for my returned power.”
A state law that required the state to buy back excess electricity generated by such rooftop arrays became simply voluntary for most of the state after deregulation arrived in 2002. Deregulation put more than half the state outside the purview of the Public Utility Commission, which began meeting last week to determine more effective ways of implementing net-metering.
“It’s been sort of a No Man’s Land for about seven years in Texas, and nobody knows what they’re supposed to do,” said Steve Weis, head of Clean Energy Associates, an Austin-based consulting agency. “Most of the utilities, I should say many of the utilities, have tried to play nice voluntarily. They’ve tried to put in a meter that sort of does the job, but there is really no consistency.”
There is still a fringe group of utilities that, along with the approximate 140 city-owned utilities and co-ops, are regulated by the PUC’s rules. That makes Bexar County a virtual California from McAllen’s viewpoint. Still, for all of the improvements at San Antonio’s City-owned CPS Energy (a new solar-rebate program and a commitment to match $150,000 in City dollars should the U.S. Department of Energy accept San Antonio into its Solar America Initiative in the coming year, a grant program worth $200,000) there is a learning curve that may be stalling residential and business solar projects.
In the Deco District of sunny San Antonio, a would-be convenience store breathes electricity. On an overcast day, it inhales slowly, drawing power from CPS’s power lines. When the sun breaks, the building exhales wattage, sending store-made electricity out to the grid for others to absorb.
But the 81 solar panels angled off the roof, capable of generating more than 13,000 watts per hour — the largest private solar array in San Antonio — had a rough time gaining approval from the new solar-friendly CPS.
Former Broadway Solar Shop owner Fred Farmer suggested in late November that the utility was perhaps intentionally keeping the power off at his 1743 Fredericksburg Road project because the Colorado-based property owner decided not to use CPS’s new solar-rebate program. If she had used the rebate, the utility would get credit — state-required Renewable Energy Credits — for the array.
Sound paranoid? Consider, Farmer did all the work on the site and it passed specs easily.
But when it came to the simple task of installing a meter, it took the utility about two months.
“We’ve just been waiting for them,” Farmer said at the time.
PUC-regulated utilities are required to return a certain percentage of Renewable Energy Credits, earned by purchasing power from renewable sources, as CPS does with wind power from West Texas, to the state each year.
While Austin has created one of the nation’s most progressive utilities, San Antonio is only now hustling to catch up.
CPS has prided itself on its offerings of cheap power, something attributable to its heavy reliance on coal. While Dallas-based TXU suffered a company buy-out early last year after sustained popular protest met its plans for more than a dozen new coal plants in the state, CPS was able to grin through it all, since it had just over a year before gained approval for a new coal plant with comparatively little notice.
“I’m not sure if we were very smart or very good or a combination of both,” CPS President Milton Lee told CPS board members one month before their unanimous decision to invest $206 million to assist in application and design costs involved in expanding their nuclear holdings in Matagorda County.
If anything, CPS was elastic. When the 750-megawatt Spruce 2 application was challenged by environmental groups, the utility agreed to expand its investment in renewable energy and energy-
efficiency programs. That helped bring about the recent $96-million commitment to energy-
efficiency programs and hundreds of millions for cleaning up the pipes at its existing coal and gas plants, commitments now appearing in public-relations materials.
Alamo City and Austin, two of the largest city-owned utilities in the state, also happen to have the only two solar-power rebate programs in Texas. Having operated its program for several years now, Austin Energy gives away $3 million in solar rebates each year and has about 500 participating in the program, said Leslie Libby, solar-program manager. Austin Energy offers $4.50 per solar watt under its program.
“What we do is we give a really big rebate and we retain the rights to the credits because we figure they don’t want to mess around with them,” Libby said. Other utilities around the country may pay $2 per watt, with a separate price offering for the credits, she said.
But Austin Energy also promises not to sell its credits to polluting utilities. Such sales only enable polluters instead of encouraging the growth of green energy in the state.
By contrast, CPS offers $3 a watt and has made no promises regarding how it will use the RECs it accumulates.
Bruce Evans, director of strategic energy management for CPS, said that 11 homeowners have applied for the solar rebate and that he expects both the rebate program’s incentives — and participation in it — to increase in the future.
Bill Sinkin, chairman of Solar San Antonio, said the local rebate has not been “thoroughly responsive” and “needs improvement.” But he defended the utility as being in an exciting state of change regarding solar.
Solar, Sinkin said, “offers a passage to freedom from Saudi Arabia, because that’s where Bush is on his knees saying, ‘Please. Drill and deliver more oil. Save me.’ That’s a pretty pathetic picture.”
Overall, the state’s required renewable standards, first launched in 1999, have “been phenomenal” if lacking in diversity, Libby said.
“What it did, it spurred so much development that we’re always exceeding the goals for renewable energy — and it’s all because of the wind development in West Texas. Solar? You can’t even see it on the radar screen.”
The state’s current goal is to require 500 megawatts be generated from non-wind renewable power by 2025. The Texas Renewable Industry Energy Association has lobbied hard in the past to help solar and other non-wind renewables get a foothold in the state, and TRIEA Director Russell Smith said that his group has not decided if they will push to have that level increased.
“The concept is certainly major on the table,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, the PUC must determine how “excess power,” that power that flows back to the power grid, should be calculated in net-metering. Until then, cases like McAllen’s will continue.
Even the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid for the state’s majority deregulated areas, is waiting on the PUC before it begins offering retailers a slice.
Until the rules are changed to define net-metering, retailers like Green Mountain Energy will continue to refuse residential payments for the free power flowing.
“The electricity is coming onto the grid, but we don’t get credit for that,” said Paul Markovich, senior vice president of residential services for the company. “We don’t get compensated for it. So if we compensated him, it’d basically be out of our own pocket. It’d basically be free electricity.”
The PUC is expected to issue a rule in April that will become the basis for whatever law goes into effect next year.
“A lot of the entities are waiting to see how the rule-making ends up, rather than proceed with things now,” Smith said. “That’s part of the debate that’s going on.
Over on Fredericksburg Road, the meter did come. CPS officials blamed “communications problems on both ends” for the delay. However, when the digital meter was installed, Farmer said the CPS employee was completely untrained in how to read it. “They really didn’t quite know how to do a dual-meter system and they really weren’t familiar with solar in general,” Farmer said. “It wasn’t all CPS’s fault. It was partly the City’s fault. They seemed to be ignorant about this stuff, too.”
Both CPS’s uncertainty and Green Mountain’s recalcitrance reflect issues that must be resolved before solar truly shines in Texas.
“I think, generally speaking, we’re on the right path, having the biggest ones showing up at the table now,” Weiss said. “They’re trying to make it work.”
Back on the border, McAllen hasn’t decided how he will pursue his case against Green Mountain Energy, the state’s supposed renewable energy champion.
“It’s a gray area, because of deregulation. No one’s challenged it before the PUC,” McAllen said. “If this situation isn’t changed no one’s going to put solar panels on their roofs, not like they do in California or anything. It’ll never happen here.” •
City-owned utilities and co-ops are not regulated by the PUC.
According to the PUC website, the agency is responsible for:
* Regulating rates and terms for intra-state transmission service and for distribution service in areas where customer choice has been introduced.
* Oversight of the ERCOT market, including market monitoring and the ERCOT administrative fee.
* Adopting and enforcing rules relating to retail competition, including customer protection, the price to beat, and the renewable energy goal.
* Licensing of retail electric providers and registration of power generation companies, power marketers and aggregators.
* Reviewing proposals for the construction of new transmission facilities.
* Regulation of rates and service for integrated utilities.
Depending, perhaps, on one’s degree of cynicism, the stain of violence marking the Middle East today is based totally or only in large part on the crude beneath the desert sands. Such oil-motivated “interventions” are only projected to increase as energy demands force industrialized nations to compete more aggressively for the remaining proven reserves of oil and natural gas.
Consider the recent rush of flag-planters at the increasingly ice-free North Pole just one anecdotal reminder. Consider increasing aggressive global oil diplomacy in China and Russia as another.
While the patriot’s call of energy independence colored the many mantras leading to the creation of 2008’s Energy Bill, the final Senatorial sweep slashed the renewable energy standards that would have forced domestic utilities to wade more deeply into solar, biomass, geothermal, and wind commitments, and replaced them with billions in loan guarantees for a new generation of nuclear power plants.
But the U.S. market has been glum on nuclear. Europe finds itself divided, with Germany phasing out nukes and the United Kingdom — like the U.S. — hoping to move forward with a new generation of plants.
Meanwhile, reports continue to warn of the intractable issues of nuclear-waste disposal, and solar energy, still a virtual novelty in Texas, is increasingly the focus of the renewable-energy drumbeat.
As 2007 drew its blinds, Nanosolar went into production in Silicon Valley with solar foil “sheets” the company promises will make solar power as cheap as coal.
Of course, such promises have been heard before and detractors have raised many questions about the feasibility of Nanosolar’s methods. That didn’t keep Scientific American from publishing the “Solar Grand Plan” this month, an extensive feature asserting that not only is solar “technology ready,” but projecting a massive $400-billion switch to solar would “eliminate all imported oil” by 2050 and provide for 69 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. Should other renewables (nukes are not “renewable,” sorry CPS) be pursued in tandem, 90 percent of the entire country’s power needs (and 100 percent of its electricity) could be met by green energy sources, the article states.
Still, the U.S. is falling behind on solar energy research and use. Though Germany receives but a smattering of Helios’s golden warmth when compared to the U.S., the country has installed about 17.3 kilowatts per resident. The U.S. has only 1.6 installed kilowatts per resident.
Of course, with a pro-nuclear president and two of the three Dem presidential candidates bankrolled by the nuke industry, there is also the small matter of national commitment. The plan laid out by authors Ken Zweibel, James Mason, and Vasilis Fthenakis is not cheap, and likely could not be achieved as long as monstrously expensive nuclear power divides the nation’s energy checkbook.
— Greg Harman