With a steady flow of unlimited photons from above, solar energy is gradually merging into the CPS Energy generation portfolio in San Antonio. Barriers that have cropped up along the way have dissolved as information has spread and public commitment has grown.
Initially, CPS Energy’s skepticism about solar energy limited the utility’s commitment. A few years ago, CPS Energy had a goal to build a one-megawatt solar installation because solar was “experimental.” Today, CPS is one of the most progressive utilities in the country in terms of its commitment to solar.
The utility recently dedicated the Blue Wing Project, a 14-megawatt solar plant off Highway 181 that is now the largest solar installation in Texas. The dedication took place shortly after the utility announced a new agreement with SunEdison to build 30 megawatts of additional solar capacity.
CPS Energy has also developed a Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), dedicating $850 million to energy efficiency and renewable-energy rebates for its customers. The program builds in solar rebates over a long term to encourage greater investment in — and development of — San Antonio’s solar industry.
The central goal for STEP is to eliminate the need for a new fossil fuel plant by reducing demand by 771 megawatts through energy efficiency or renewables. The program is in its second year and well along toward meeting its goals.
In the offices of Solar San Antonio, we can see on a daily basis the dramatic change that CPS Energy’s commitment has brought to solar. San Antonio is now on everyone’s radar when it comes to solar development. We are receiving visits from solar companies considering locating here, solar financiers looking for projects, people wanting to start solar companies, and representatives of new solar products who want to be introduced to the San Antonio solar community.
Recently, Solar San Antonio ran a two-month campaign to encourage people to install solar energy for electricity and water heating. The campaign offered information on solar and access to an affordable loan from San Antonio Credit Union at our website — BringSolarHome.com.
When we started the campaign, there were fewer than 150 solar photovoltaic systems and fewer than 25 solar hot water systems installed in the CPS Energy service area. (CPS Energy had offered rebates for both solar technologies for more than three years.) We received more than 450 applications — a tremendous response.
While we can not say for sure how many installations there will be, we attribute the high number of applications to our having provided the key elements to success: easily understood information and affordable financing.
The CPS rebates are a key to affordable solar. Right now, CPS will pay up to half of the cost of solar installations. With the addition of a 30-percent federal tax credit, the actual cost to the home or business owner can be lowered to about a third of the full cost. With no money down and low-interest solar improvement loans available, solar has suddenly become affordable to much of the city.
Consider also the energy a home solar system produces, replacing energy that would otherwise have had to be purchased from CPS Energy. Those savings help make the loan payments. We have seen one loan model in which the savings from the solar generator equaled the loan payment made to finance the solar unit, so essentially solar was free.
In the last session of the Texas Legislature, a bill almost passed that would have provided $500 million a year for five years in solar rebates. Unfortunately, the debate over an unrelated bill prevented a final vote on the solar bill. The new Legislature will take up the question of solar under the cloud of a huge budget deficit, and passing incentives for solar this year may well be even more difficult.
While there is broad political support for renewables, we are not optimistic that the next Congress will pursue dynamic initiatives to promote incorporation of renewables into our national energy system.
Solar San Antonio will continue to focus our efforts on building community and institutional support for solar that relies primarily on our local resources for implementation. Thinking globally and acting locally, we see a bright future for solar in San Antonio.
Lanny Sinkin is the executive director of Solar San Antonio.
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