A brighter future for solar in Texas

I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. - Thomas Edison, in conversation with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, 1931

According to the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO), Texas has the greatest solar energy potential of any state in the country. “If photovoltaic (PV) systems operating at 10 percent average efficiency were distributed throughout 5 percent of Texas urban areas on building rooftops, over parking lots and along roadways, they would produce over half the electricity needed for Texas' current electrical consumption,” SECO reports.

More Texas residents and businesses may soon be adding solar panels to their buildings if proposed legislation is passed. One idea being considered by legislators is to extend the successful Austin rebate program to the rest of the state. In addition, Beaumont-Port Arthur area Representative Allan Ritter, has introduced House Bill 231, which seeks to limit interference by homeowner and neighborhood groups in the installation of solar panels. A pioneer in green building design, LaVerne Williams, welcomes this development saying that property associations have been known to restrict homeowners from installing solar systems, particularly if they are visible from the street. Garnet Coleman, a state representative from Houston, has also announced that he will craft a bill that would promote renewable energy, including solar power, in the upcoming legislative session.

There are several different ways to harness the sun’s energy. Solar thermal panels capture the heat of the sun and use it to warm water. The water can be circulated through a building by passive, natural means or through the use of electric heat pumps, valves and controllers. This second method, known as an active system, is more costly, but provides greater efficiency. For an average family of four, an active system costs about $5,000.

Photovoltaics, or PVs, convert the sun’s energy into electricity. For years PVs were too expensive for use in larger applications. Years of intense research have lead to a doubling in PV efficiency since the 1970s. In recent years, a shortage of silicon, the primary material used to convert sunlight into useful energy, has limited the production of PVs and consequently their prices have remained fairly high at $8 to $10 per watt.

The shortage has driven manufacturers to improvise and innovate. Flexible, lightweight film cells, one of the new solar technology innovations, employs little to no silicon and can be applied to nearly any surface. Uni-Solar has created a solar film that looks like roof shingles. The cells are designed to blend into the conventional roof pattern, alongside a home’s shingles. They can also double as shingles, providing the same durability and flexibility as asphalt shingles.

The average residential PV module usually ranges from one kilowatt (1,000 watts) to five kilowatts of electricity. At $8 to $10 per watt, PV systems can cost a homeowner tens of thousands of dollars. Rebates, tax credits and grants offered by federal and local government agencies, and utility companies greatly reduce the financial burden on homeowners and businesses. The federal government provides a 30 percent tax credit for residential solar installations, up to $2,000. If homeowners hook up both a PV and solar thermal system they are eligible for up to a $4,000 tax credit. Businesses receive the same terms, but have no cap on their maximum credit.

States often step in with their own incentives to make the purchase of solar systems more affordable. California, Oregon Illinois, Florida, Connecticut and New York offer a variety of incentives in the form of rebates, grants and state income tax credits that, when coupled with the federal tax credit, reduce the costs of purchasing and installing solar panels by 50 percent or more.

So far, Texas government has provided minimal incentives for taking advantage of its superior solar power potential. The state provides a property tax exemption to homeowners for the installation of solar systems. Basically, any increase in one’s property value resulting from the installation is exempted from the homeowner’s taxes. Businesses can deduct the full cost of the system from their capital gains taxes or deduct 10 percent of the system’s cost from the company’s income.

Austin Energy, the city-owned electricity provider for Austin, Texas, provides one of the most generous rebates in the country at $4.50 per watt, up to 3,000 watts for PV installations. Combined with state and federal rebates, Austin residents can save as much as 75 percent off the cost of installation.

Houston has no such program and consequently very little in the way of solar installations. LaVerne Williams estimates that as many as 2,000 to 3,000 solar thermal systems are in use today by residences and business in the city. That number represents perhaps a tenth of the installations that were on Houston rooftops in the early 1980s. Most of the systems were removed as a result of homeowners having to replace their roof’s shingles. The cost to reinstall the solar panels was prohibitive, according to Williams.

Of the thousands still remaining, only five to 10 are thought to have been installed within the past 20 years. “The economics are not favorable to solar thermal [installations] unless you have an all-electric home,” explains Kevin Conlin, president of SolarCraft, a manufacturer, distributor and seller of solar-related accessories.

As for PVs, Mike Ewert, president of the Houston Renewable Energy Group, estimates that there are about six commercial installations in the city, including the panels atop The University of Texas/Houston Health Science Center and those on the roof of the Upper Kirby District building, where a number of Houston’s environmental groups had offices until just recently. Ewert believes there are just 10 to 20 residential PV systems in the entire city. For comparison, Austin (a city a third the size of Houston) installed about 160 PV arrays in the past year.

If legislation is passed to provide incentives for residents and businesses to add solar panels and reduce dependence on fossil fuel for electricity, energy will cost less in the long run, and the environment will be cleaner- producing a better quality of life for all Texas citizens. Let your representatives know you want solar incentives to be available for all Texans.

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