Austin City Council to form solar committee

April 22, 2012

By Marty Toohey
Austin American Statesman

Under pressure from solar-power advocates who fear Austin may short-circuit a budding local industry, the Austin City Council is rethinking the city’s strategy for expanding solar power.

The council is scheduled to vote Thursday to create a "Local Solar Advisory Committee" charged with studying how best to grow the industry. One of the committee’s major tasks will be resolving a disagreement between the solar industry and Austin Energy about where to build solar, and when.

Solar advocates envision a push for 300 megawatts of local solar capacity – mostly on rooftops – over the next decade, up from about ut 6 megawatts now. (Austin Energy can now generate up to about 2,800 megawatts.)

They say that goal would attract not only a robust hub of solar-technology companies but also blue-collar installation jobs. They point to San Antonio’s recent commitment to attract 400 megawatts of local solar power, and the hundreds of local jobs required to meet that goal, as an example to be emulated.

Austin Energy’s plans call for 200 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2020 – but envisions most of that happening through large-scaale arrays in West Texas. Utility officials say that is the better approach because large solar arrays are less expensive and would take advantage of the more intense sunlight in the western part of the state.

Solar is generally a costlier way to generate electricity than other means, although the price has been dropping steadily. In essence, the disagreement is about whether to view solar as a clean source of energy worth supporting until it becomes cost-competitive or whether to emphasize it as a vehicle for creating local jobs.

"We have had divergent perspectives on local solar and what our goals should be and how to implement them. We need to be pragmatic about it, but we want to set up a plan to use as much local solar as possible," said Council Member Laura Morrison, who proposed creating the solar committee along with Council Members Bill Spelman and Chris Riley.

The committee would essentially take much of the city’s goal-setting responsibility for solar out of the hands of Austin Energy, although the utility would presumably be responsible for carrying out recommendations that are adopted by the City Council.

The committee’s 11 members will include solar-industry professionals, environmental activists, consumer advocates and a representative from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, according to the council resolution that would create the committee.

Much of the organizing and technical advice would be handled by Pecan Street Inc., a clean energy research consortium. The committee will be looking into questions that range from the overarching – for instance, how tto weigh the potential economic benefits against the costs – to techhnical details, such as how to structure Austin Energy’s solar subsidies.

Facing a budget pinch and its first base-rate increase in 18 years, Austin Energy has reduced the size of the incentives it offers for rooftop solar, causing the consternation in the local solar industry that led to the new committee. Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis has said San Antonio can more easily afford more aggressive solar goals because its city-owned utility gets a higher share of its power from relatively cheap coal and nuclear plants.

Michael Osborne, a special assistant to Weis, said the utility is looking mainly to large-scale arrays to satisfy its goals because electricity from them can be had for under 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, while the electricity from small-scale "distributed" arrays generally costs around 22 cents per kilowatt-hour.

"If we want a very large local solar component, then we really need a task force like this" to figure out how to make it work, Osborne said. "It’s an important starting point."

The solar goals are part of a larger plan to increase the renewable energy the city produces to 35 percent by 2020, up from about 12 percent now.

Tod Wickersham, a consultant hired to handle Solar Austin Foundation’s government relations, said the industry supports buying solar power from West Texas but thinks the city needs a separate local solar goal. He also said the industry is concerned less about hitting 300 megawatts than getting a clear commitment that solar companies could rely on.

"What the industry tells me is they design and hire based on the size of the commitment from the community," Wickersham said, adding that industry executives need that reliable signal partly to avoid "a boom-bust cycle."

Wickersham said the industry is not looking for a free ride from Austin Energy’s customers. He said solar-industry executives assume the subsidies will shrink over the next decade and have determined that the 300-megawatt goal is realistic if Austin Energy gradually reduces the rebate from the current $2.50 per watt to less than $1 per watt.

"This assumes the industry performs," Wickersham said. "The committee’s main thing to us is to determine what’s reasonable, what’s not, how to make it work best for the community and how to reduce the costs."

Contact Marty Toohey at 445-3673

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