the time for solar is now
There has never been a better moment for Austin homeowners to invest in solar than now.
Austin Energy rebates, federal tax credits, and a newly approved premium price that Austin will pay for energy produced by rooftop solar combine to make it a bargain. The rebates can cut the price of an array of panels — typically around $12,000 for a 5 kilowatt system — by about half.
The federal tax credit, due to expire in 2016, will cover 30% of a homeowner’s remaining out-of-pocket expenses. On top of all that, Austin Energy will now pay 12.8 cents for each kilowatt hour of energy produced — which is more than the maximum it will charge residential customers for electricity under the rate package just approved by the Austin City Council. This greatly reduces the pay-back period for households who invest in solar and allows them to profit even sooner from the mini ‘clean energy power plant’ on their roofs.
The premium payment for home-generated solar is an important victory for Clean Water Action and allies in the Solar Austin coalition. Clean Water Action members signed and sent 4,000 postcards to the Austin City Council calling for improved programs. The victory is one piece of a rate package that raises rates overall but strengthens incentives for conservation and solar so energy-smart customers can come out ahead financially. Under the new five-tier rate structure, customers will be charged progressively more as their energy consumption increases. The package also more than doubles the number of low-income families eligible for assistance in paying their electric bills.
The reason it makes sense for Austin Energy or almost any utility to pay a premium for solar is because the premium rate (12.8 cents in this case) is still cheaper the price utilities pay when they have to purchase from the market on hot summer afternoons. Normally, when electricity demand peaks like this, the power-sellers respond by firing up expensive fossil-fuel “peaker plants” for short periods of time. Of course solar electric output also peaks on the same hot afternoons, so solar reduces the need to buy additional energy from the grid at steep fossil-fueled prices. The utility saves additional money by avoiding infrastructure costs and electricity lost through long-distance transmission. Society as a whole benefits from decreased pollution and job creation from solar investments.
Austin Energy earned an international award in 1992 for its pioneering energy efficiency programs. The utility’s “conservation power plant” approach saved as much energy as would have been generated by an expensive new natural gas plant. Now is the time for Austin Energy to supplement its “conservation power plant” with a “solar power plant” created by installing at least 300 megawatts of solar capacity on individual rooftops by 2020. This will fuel an economic boom in Central Texas, reduce dependence on dirty fossil fuels, conserve water that conventional electric generation requires, and put money back in the pockets of ordinary Austinites.