CPS Energy is revamping procedures for solar energy installers as part of a $15 million extension of its popular solar rebate program.

The utility hopes streamlined rules for registered installation companies will result in better business practices, and better experiences for customers, especially first-time solar energy consumers. The new rules go into effect June 1.

Through its Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP) program, CPS Energy originally set aside $43 million in rebate funds in 2009. The initial funds were slated to last through this decade, but due to increased demand and a decrease in technology costs, the first pot of rebate money dried up.

In December 2015, the utility refilled the pot with $30 million for rebates, but that supply has just about been exhausted. The CPS Energy board of trustees decided in January to replenish the fund with $15 million.

According to Olivia Gomez, solar program administrator for the public utility, the number of customers applying for solar energy rebates continues to rise, especially residential consumers.

The utility received 277 residential applications in February and 377 applications in March. Nearly 300 more applications had been received in April so far.

About $2.2 million in rebates were paid out in March to residential customers. Just under $2 million was paid in February. Another $1 million has been paid so far in April.

While the program’s popularity grows, sectors of the local solar industry have pushed for stronger regulations on participating installers.

The Rivard Report in February reported that CPS Energy has strengthened its policies over the past year to better inform consumers and discourage predatory companies from taking advantage of new solar buyers.

More than one dozen representatives of solar installers and other stakeholders reviewed the proposed revisions Wednesday at the utility’s Rochelle Training Center on the Eastside.

The utility has received input from contractors while revamping the guidelines.

“We have over 60 (registered) companies and more are coming,” said Rick Luna, CPS Energy’s senior manager of product development.

“We’re trying to better inform customers, protect them as they make an important investment, and make sure the systems are high quality.”

When the new rebates are offered, the utility will pay 60 cents per watt, with an extra eight- and two-cent incentive if customers choose locally made modules and inverters, respectively.

That results in a total possible rebate of 70 cents per watt. About $9 million in the rebate extension is being directed to residential installations.

Some policy revision highlights include:

  • Contractors must employ a full-time worker who’s certified in photovoltaic (PV) installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP);
  • The contractor must employ a full-time licensed master electrician;
  • The contractor must be in good standing with public consumer protection agencies;
  • The contractor must have a representative take part in mandatory CPS Energy stakeholder meetings either in person or by teleconference;
  • Registered contractors may describe themselves only as a “registered contractor” in the utility’s solar rebate program;
  • Registered contractors may not describe their companies as “approved,” “certified,” “accredited” or “recommended” by the utility;
  • A registered contractor may not make misleading statements regarding energy production, utility rates, rebates, taxes, meter installation or permitting;
  • The solar disclosure form will include a PV watts report showing the estimated kilowatts-per-hour production for the installed system;
  • Only registered contractors, listed on the CPS Energy website and in good standing, may offer and market the program;
  • A rebate applicant must have a contract directly with a registered contractor who must submit the rebate application on the applicant’s behalf.

A registered contractor’s first violation of the program manual will result in a warning letter to that company. A second violation will result in a 60-day suspension from the program.

A third violation leads to a six-month removal. Additional violations may result in a one-year removal. Further or extreme violations could lead to permanent removal.

New contractors and those previous registered contractors with any substantiated complaints are subject to a probation period so they can become more familiar with processes and requirements.

A rebate applicant has 120 days from date of approval or disapproval to complete installation of a residential PV system. For commercial systems, the time limit is 180 days.

Residential or commercial applicants may request extensions from their 120- or 180-day window if needed.

The rebate caps will remain at $25,000 for residential systems, and $80,000 for commercial systems.

For multi-tenant commercial lease spaces, where solar is connected to individual tenant meters, the property owner must certify in writing they will not resell energy to tenants.

Luna acknowledged it’s been a challenge to develop a full set of installation/contracting guidelines given that the physical designs of some affected homes and commercial properties can vary greatly.

“It’s hard to have a policy that applies to everyone because every project is different,” he added.

Some of the stakeholders attending Wednesday’s meeting in person or by teleconference offered some questions and comments, mainly on details in the guidelines.

A few attendees felt the extra two-cent incentive is not so effective because it would cost a customer more money to switch out an inverter.

George Gutierrez of Solar Alliance Texas said that, in some cases, a customer could get “an inferior product (inverter),” so the extra two-cent rebate would not benefit the end-user.

But on the whole, none of the attending representatives opposed the revamped guidelines.

Also, the finalized new guidelines and necessary forms related to the solar rebate program will be centralized under one link on the CPS Energy website. As of now, policies and forms are found via several links.

“It’ll be all in one place to cut down on confusion,” Luna said.

Luna added the stakeholders will have another opportunity to review the new policies before they become final on June 1.

June is also when CPS Energy launches a new rebate program, as the utility emphasizes another eco-friendly way that customers can be more energy efficient.

The Cool Roof pilot program will benefit customers in the process of replacing or retrofitting their existing roof.

A “cool roof” contains materials that reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat than those in standard roofing, resulting in lower peak electricity demand and local air temperatures.

“Cool roofs” can be made of a highly reflective type of paint, a sheet covering, or highly reflective tiles or shingles.

Customers must purchase/install qualifying roofing materials between June 1 and December 31, 2017.

The rebate amount depends on square-footage of the new roofing, and the percentage of reflectance resulting from the new roofing materials.

Homes must have functioning electrical air conditioning. Window and central air conditioning are both eligible.

District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño is a supporter of the Cool Roof rebate program.

“I applaud CPS Energy for further incentivizing people to make smart, eco-friendly design choices,” he said in a news release.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.