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United States: USA: Solar industry pushes Austin Energy to put major emphasis on solar power

Published at: Feb 15, 2012
source: Austin American-Statesman
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Solar industry leaders are urging Austin Energy to build its next generating plant on the city's rooftops to create thousands of local jobs, as opposed to expanding an existing natural gas-fired plant.

Solar industry leaders are urging Austin Energy to build its next generating plant on the city's rooftops to create thousands of local jobs, as opposed to expanding an existing natural gas-fired plant.

The trade group Solar Austin, which includes several CEOs of small solar energy companies, is urging the Austin City Council to commit to constructing 300 megawatts of rooftop generation by 2020 as a means of supporting the industry and creating jobs.

Austin Energy officials, however, said Tuesday that such an aggressive goal is not affordable or realistic on that timeline.

"If we run a really robust program, we might be lucky to hit 20 megawatts in three years," Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis said.

The issue, which Solar Austin raised at a news conference Tuesday, is being debated amid a contentious rate case in which the City Council is weighing a 12.5 percent increase in electricity rates or a short-term hike of 3.5 percent and another year of study.

To put 300 megawatts in perspective, Austin Energy customers have installed a total of about 6 megawatts since the utility started offering rebates for the installation of rooftop panels in 2004. Austin Energy has a 30-megawatt solar farm in Webberville.

Solar energy advocates say San Antonio is eclipsing Austin as a clean energy hub with its plans to build 400 megawatts of solar energy at various sites around the Alamo City.

CPS Energy, San Antonio's municipally owned utility, in January selected OCI Solar Power — a subsidiary of a South Korean company — from a list of 19 bidders to bring at least 800 jobs, with an annual payroll of $40 million and 400 megawatts of solar power. That would be enough to power about 80,000 homes. The final contract is still being negotiated.

Solar Austin said 615 full-time solar energy jobs have been created here in manufacturing, research and development, solar installation and consulting with the 6 megawatts of installed solar panels since 2004.

"This shows what can happen when the City of Austin supports clean energy," said Carey Ibrahimbegovic, co-owner of Greenbelt Solar, a solar energy installer.

But Mark Begert, executive director at Meridian Solar Inc., said he is worried that there is no strategy to continue that trend.

"The utility is discussing options to reduce solar funding," he said. "To get 21st century clean-tech jobs, we need to be going in the opposite direction."

He said Austin Energy's rebates for commercial buildings have been too low to encourage installation.

Begert cited his own commercial construction company as an example of Austin losing jobs without a stronger commitment to solar energy.

His workforce shrank from 40 to 25 in Austin as few commercial solar projects were built here.

Today, the company has 65 workers, but still only 25 in Austin, as expansion has occurred elsewhere.

Weis said Austin Energy would not reduce its spending on solar energy. "We will not have a shortage of funds for solar peak power," he said.

He said Austin Energy is raising its commercial rebates — not high enough, according to Solar Austin — to invigorate that market.

"We want to build a very robust consumer solar industry," he said.

But Weis and his special assistant, Michael Osborne, said it is incorrect to compare Austin Energy with the much larger San Antonio utility.

CPS sells almost twice as much electricity as Austin. Weis and Osborne also said San Antonio has a lower overall cost for its generating fuels because CPS relies more on coal and nuclear energy, two options that Austin leaders have de-emphasized over the years.

That lower overhead gives CPS an extra $110 million to spend on solar incentives, Weis and Osborne said.

Austin has a goal of producing 35 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, including wind, biomass and solar, by 2020. But Osborne said the utility has to be conscious of costs.

"Our approach is to buy renewable energy that is the most affordable and gives us the most bang for the buck," Osborne said.

Despite falling prices for solar, wind generated in West Texas and natural gas remains cheaper than solar, Osborne said.

To generate 300 megawatts, Weis estimated that 15 percent of Austin's rooftops — mostly on commercial and industrial sites — would have to have solar panels. He said utility-sized solar farms would probably have to be built to reach 300 megawatts.

Austin Energy is also planning to expand its natural gas-fired plant at Sand Hills, near Decker Lake, by 200 megawatts.

Weis said swapping rooftop solar power for a gas-fired unit is not an even trade. He said natural gas can generate around-the-clock while solar is limited by weather and the number of hours of daylight.

Weis also questioned the timing of Solar Austin's push. He said it would make more sense to discuss it later this year when Austin Energy updates its generation plan, not in the middle of a rate case.

"I found their timing curious," he said.

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