January 7, 2013

By Asher Price and Marty Toohey
Austin American-Statesman

A City Council-appointed committee is recommending that Austin take a sunnier view of solar power's short-term potential.

The Local Solar Committee, formed after criticism that the city was pursuing contracts with large-scale solar projects in West Texas at the expense of the local solar industry, envisions a patchwork of solar panels across Austin that could produce 200 megawatts by 2020. That is a more aggressive goal than the city is now pursuing.

Committee members, both solar boosters and skeptics, also say Austin should reduce subsidies the city offers — essentially challenging the solar industry to produce at prices cheap enough to make solar attractive with minimal city price supports. The committee also says the city should place particular emphasis on making solar programs more appealing to commercial buildings, a step members say is dependent not on spending more but on spending more wisely.

"The cost of panels has been dropping steadily and predictably, and the economics support our recommendation," said Steve Wiese, the chairman of the committee. "We're not talking about Austin getting 25 percent of its electricity from solar, but it is an important component. We also understand these (city) incentives don't come for free, and we'd like to see them phased out."

Traditionally, solar power has been viewed through the prism of power costs and environmental concerns. But the committee placed much of its emphasis on local economic development — the twin notions that panel construction is a budding industry and that panel installation supports blue-collar jobs.

"It's not necessarily a chicken in every pot and a panel on every roof; it's less a directive (about where specifically to put solar) than an analysis of the possibilities," said Bernie Bernfeld, a committee member and chairman of the city's Electric Utility Commission, which advises the City Council on energy matters.

Looking west for solar

An emphasis on local, small-time solar production would be a shift for Austin, which now has about 6 megawatts of rooftop solar. The city has been eyeing solar arrays in West Texas to supplement a 30-megawatt facility that opened last year in Webberville. Austin Energy, the city-owned utility, has envisioned reaching 200 megawatts of generating capacity by 2020, mostly through large-scale arrays.

The council created the solar committee partly to sort through a disagreement among solar supporters about how much emphasis to place on local solar. Austin Energy, the city-owned electric utility, will be getting about 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources later this year and plans to get 35 percent by 2020. Much of that is expected to come from wind, which is less expensive than solar, but 200 megawatts would come from solar.

A megawatt can power about 200 homes on a hot afternoon when air conditioners are running.

Austin-based solar executives say that relying on large West Texas arrays would short-circuit the budding industry. Their complaints led the City Council to create the solar committee, which is recommending that Austin Energy double its 2020 goal to 400 megawatts, half of which would come from solar generated locally.

"It would be cheaper to buy it all from West Texas, but that would have a smaller local economic impact," said John Sutton, a committee member representing the Building Owners and Managers Association of Austin.

Sutton and others representing Austin's industrial interests on the committee "questioned whether 400 megawatts was being too aggressive, but this is important: With that goal would be an emphasis that Austin Energy would not exceed its affordability goal." That goal is to keep costs from rising no more than 2 percent a year, as well as keep rates lower than at least half the utilities in Texas.

"We don't necessarily think Austin will get to 400 megawatts, but if it can under those circumstances, great," Sutton said.

San Antonio as a model?

Solar advocates frequently point out that San Antonio's solar investment goals are more aggressive than Austin's, but San Antonio's electric utility also structured a recent landmark deal in terms similar to what Austin Energy had been discussing. A pair of companies will open manufacturing plants in San Antonio that will supply panels and other solar parts from which the city will get its solar power, an arrangement expected to create 800 jobs. But the panels will actually be installed in five large facilities around the state — not on Alamo City rooftops.

Wiese said that balance between rooftops and large installations is one that Austin Energy should work out in its own in-depth analysis.

"We realize we're not utility engineers," said Wiese, who is also chairman of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association. "But the city can probably do a better job of linking these things together."

A council subcommittee has been briefed on the committee's recommendation, but it's not clear when the council will take up the matter and whether the council needs to formally adopt the recommendations before the city pursues them.

Austin officials are likely to move cautiously because some Austin Energy customers outside of the city have appealed a recent rate increase to the Texas Public Utility Commission, and the state Legislature, which has historically taken a less bullish view of renewables than Austin, is about to convene at the Capitol.

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