Residential and commercial CPS Energy customers will soon be able to receive discounts on their electricity bills without even seeing a solar panel when Clean Energy Collective, in partnership with the City-owned utility, flips the switch on its RooflessSolar program in July.
CEC will likely complete its 1.2 megawatt (MW) community solar farm off Loop 1607 and U.S. Highway 87 near Adkins, TX between July 11 and July 15 when it plans to send executives to San Antonio to launch the pilot program alongside CPS Energy, said Jonathan W. Postal (J.W.), chief operating officer of the Colorado-based solar development company.
Under the program, customers purchase the rights to solar panels at about $200 each and the electricity generated will be credited to their bill. Each panel takes about nine years to pay for itself after federal tax credits and local incentives. The RooflessSolar program is geared towards CPS Energy customers that can’t afford solar installation, have homes or businesses unsuitable for solar installation, or simply don’t want the hassle of having panels installed on their property but still want to “join the club,” Postal said.
To connect the customer with their abstract investment in Adkins, CEC developed a mobile-optimized website MyOwnCleanEnergy to check in on their panels 24 hours a day. The site displays how much electricity the customer’s panels are producing and how much money will be taken off their bill.
About 31% of the solar farm’s capacity has already been sold to more than 1,500 customers, Postal said, and CEC hasn’t started its focused marketing or awareness campaigns yet. But Postal isn’t surprised that San Antonians have jumped on the offer.
“San Antonio is a very solar-friendly city compared to some markets. The level of education on the solar business and the solar market is pretty high here,” he said, noting the 500 MW of solar generation that CPS Energy will have in its renewable energy portfolio by the end of 2016. CPS Energy’s goal is to have 1,500 megawatts (MW) of renewable capacity by 2020, which will be the equivalent of about 20% of total generation.
“Sadly, solar has become political, there’s been lots of fights with regulators, legislators, and utilities,” Postal said.
The solar industry in some states like Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada is struggling to work within newly-founded regulations. Developers in Texas can operate with relative freedom.
The city tops several regional lists for having the most installed capacity of solar including one that ranks it No. 1 in Texas.
Further illustrating that point, I spoke with Postal in a grand hallway at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort on Tuesday where hundreds of solar industry stakeholders from around the world convened for day one of the Solar Power Southwest conference that continues through Wednesday.
The regional conference is one of many put on in the U.S. by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) that leads up to its four-day international conference, which will be in Las Vegas this year from September 12-15.
The first panel discussion on Tuesday’s agenda was a case study on CPS Energy’s strategies to increase utility- and customer-scale solar projects while nurturing a local “hub” of solar companies.
“National organizations like SEIA and SEPA are taking note of what we’re doing here in San Antonio to build this solar ecosystem – this New Energy Economy,” said CPS Energy spokesman Paul Flaningan.
“Not many utilities are doing something like this,” he added, noting solar manufacturing and service companies that have moved operations or opened up offices in San Antonio like Sun Action Trackers, KACO new energy, OCI Solar Power/Mission Solar, Greenstar, and others.
Industry leaders and other utilities are taking closer looks at CPS Energy’s Simply Solar pilot programs: the SolarHost program that essentially allows customers to lease out their roofs for a flat fee to a company that installs and maintains solar panels for free and pays the customer “rent” for the space, and the roofless/community solar program operated by CEC.
“We’re always looking for different ways to deliver innovative products to our customers,” Flaningan said. “The more information we can learn from other energy providers or other utilities, the better.”
The SolarHost and community solar programs are still pilot programs. The leases and contracts last decades on the MW installed, but whether CPS Energy will expand them remains to be seen. Initial data indicates a strong demand for both programs.
“Once these pilots come to an end, we’ll gather the data, we’ll hear from our customers on what worked and what didn’t work,” he said. “We’re going to re-tool and re-think and we’re going to come at our customers with products and services that they want.”
The rapidly depleting solar rebate indicates a strong market for private installation as well.
CEC has toyed with the idea of scaling up the program in the future, but Postal is reserving that judgement call until the data comes in.
“This is a nice sized pilot program that’s got to be proved out,” he said.
While one could get away with receiving the benefits of solar without ever seeing solar panels by buying into CEC’s program, Postal hopes anyone curious about the program comes out to several events that will be planned for the program’s official launch week in July. Details are pending, but he said it will be a good opportunity to see how the solar “sausage” is made.
Top image: (File photo) A solar farm in Uvalde, TX. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.