San Antonio has further climbed the ranks of major U.S. cities that are leading the way for solar power installation in the United States.

Environment America, a nonprofit national network of 29 state environmental groups, on Wednesday released its annual analysis of installed solar electricity capacity in major U.S. cities and San Antonio ranked fifth and was named a “Solar Star” for its initiatives that have increased solar availability for its residents.

The No. 5 ranking, which is for 2019, is the highest San Antonio has achieved since the surveys began in 2013. In the past few years, the city has hovered around sixth and seventh. It is the only Texas city to rank among the top 10 cities nationwide thanks to an increase of nearly 67.6 megawatts of solar capacity installed within city limits on residential and commercial rooftops and solar farms in the past year. That number marks a 36 percent increase over 2018 while U.S. capacity grew 23 percent.

“We saw San Antonio really doubling down [on solar] last year,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, the Austin-based branch of Environment America, the nonprofit that performed the analysis.

Environment America’s “Shining Cities” report has surveyed 57 cities for the past seven years. Almost 90 percent of those cities more than doubled their total installed solar photovoltaic (PV) — the direct conversion of light into electricity — capacity between 2013 and 2019.

San Antonio has more than 254 megawatts (MW) of installed solar capacity: Austin ranked 14th with nearly 62 MW and Houston ranked 19th with about 42 MW. Los Angeles still leads the nation with nearly 484 MW.

CPS Energy ranked No. 2 nationally for municipally-owned utilities with installed capacity with its nearly 765 MW. Much of that capacity is outside San Antonio city limits.

The utility’s largely successful solar incentives have boosted adoption of solar throughout the city, Metzger said.

“Despite the [coronavirus] crisis that we’re in, the momentum has continued,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg at a press conference held over Zoom. “I will remain committed, along with my [City Council] colleagues, to pushing renewable, sustainable energy moving forward.”

Last year, CPS Energy saw a 21 percent increase in residential solar panel rebate applications, Nirenberg noted. “The folks on the ground, our residents, are seeing the value to their households – the value to their families – of the adoption of solar.”

Commercial applications for the utility’s rebate program also increased, said Nirenberg, who sits on the utility’s board in his official capacity. Twenty commercial projects have been proposed this year through April, compared to a total of 27 in all of 2019.

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said renewable energies such as solar will play a critical role in the utility’s transition away from burning fossil fuels.

Solar is a major component of utility’s award-winning energy conservation program, Gold-Williams said. The Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan which saved 845 MW of electricity from 2009 to 2020 – beyond the 771 MW goal.

“[Solar] is definitely a part of what’s attractive to our customers – it’s a part of what’s right in terms of evolving our portfolio to cleaner technologies,” she said. “We continue to think about where can we go from here.”

There is an estimated 3,721 MW of potential residential and commercial rooftop capacity, according to the analysis.

“While we want to do a lot of large-scale [solar farm],” Gold-Williams said, “we definitely feel like there’s a huge component of value with distributed solar.”

To replace 1,700 MW of capacity from gas steam units approaching the end of their useful lives, CPS Energy plans to release a global request for proposals (RFP) for companies to apply to fulfill that need. The so-called “FlexPower Bundle” would add 900 megawatts of solar capacity to the utility’s portfolio, 50 megawatts of battery storage, and 300-500 megawatts of natural gas capacity or other technology. 

“That [breakdown between energy sources] can change, depending on how effective that bid is,” Gold-Williams said. “We’re going to keep that flexibility.”

Natural gas is “hard to beat” in terms of price and reliability, she said, but the utility started getting companies – prior to the coronavirus pandemic – “knocking at on our door and telling us that they have some things that [they] think could rival gas. So we think there could be a lot of opportunities there.”

That RFP was slated to be released earlier this year, but the pandemic slowed the process, she said.

“We would be lucky if we can get it in late summer,” she said. “It will depend on our ability to have people respond to that RFP. The more that we can get global attention, the better it will be.”

While San Antonio – and CPS Energy – is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels and natural gas and environmentalist don’t always agree with the utilities policies, Metzger said, “we want to give credit where credit is due. It’s clear from the data that San Antonio is a shining city.”

Gold-Williams said the coronavirus pandemic will impact the utility’s budget, but that ultimately won’t derail its FlexPower plans. 

As the utility continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, two more CPS Energy employees have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to three. The utility learned of the positive tests earlier this week, according to a Wednesday press release. The employees are quarantining and recovering at home. 

“Neither employee had customer interactions,” the press release reads. “One remote team member last reported to a CPS Energy facility more than 14 days ago. The second is a field services team member who last reported to work six days ago and who continues to be in quarantine. We do not anticipate this development to significantly impact our business operations.”

During her opening remarks at the board meeting Wednesday, Gold-Williams said the two employees do not work in sectors of the utility that may need to be sequestered should the virus spread further in the community.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at