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Austin, Texas: Lone Solar City in the Lone Star State?

“Wind power capital of the world!” travelers will read on a drive along Interstate 20 in Central Texas. Towering white wind turbines now dot the landscape in Texas like freshly added salt among a vast peppering of oil wells. Texas leads the nation in both wind power production and greenhouse gas emissions. The Lone Star State also has some of the highest solar energy exposure in the nation, yet solar power is a resource the Texas state government is content with ignoring.

Just this spring, the state legislature roundly refused to act further on Texas’ solar potential, including a denial of funding for state solar rebates and a stricter RPS. So any progressive solar programs in Texas will come from cities or utilities. And there are a few shining examples. Ironically, the most progressive city in Texas for home solar power is the very state capital where legislators continue to shrug off solar energy.

Austin

Austin, Texas is a Solar America City award recipient and has plans to be carbon-neutral by 2020, including 100% of city-owned buildings powered by renewable energy by 2012 and all city vehicles running on electricity or alternative fuels by 2020. Austin has long been a pioneer in green building as well. Most of Austin’s renewable energy comes from wind farms in central Texas, but solar does not go unheeded.

Austin Energy, the city-owned utility, has an absolutely amazing PV rebate program in place. City residents installing home solar power systems can recover up to $50,000 or 80% of invoiced costs at a rate of $3.75 per kilowatt AC. As you might imagine, residents jumped at such an opportunity and the allotted funds were quickly spent. But have no fear, Austin City apparently knows no limits, and the program is expected to reopen in October.

Austin Energy customers are also eligible for a solar hot water rebate of $1,500 for new homes and $2,000 for existing homes. Remodeling homeowners can opt instead for a low-interest (0-2%) loan up to $5,000 for a solar water heater.

A quick, but powerful note on green building in Austin: Since 2000, all new buildings and renovations costing more than $2 million, with work occurring in five LEED categories, MUST achieve LEED-Silver certification. This basically targets all major new buildings and most renovations. Arguably the Green Building and Live Music capital of the world, it’s no wonder Austin has such a powerful reputation as a progressive and sustainable city. If only the buck didn’t stop at the foot of the State Capital steps.

Houston

Fortunately, some other Texas cities are starting to catch on to Austin’s green and solar ways. Most notable of late is Houston, which is poised to house Texas’s largest PV power plant. Houston also has a green building initiative on the books that is similar to Austin’s (though not as strong or enforceable), requiring new buildings over 10,000 square feet to comply with LEED certification to the “greatest extent practical.” It should be noted that Houston is also Solar America City.

Like Austin, San Antonio is serviced by a publicly-owned utility. CPS Energy offers $3.00/watt AC for home solar power systems. The incentive maximum is $30,000 or 50% of the system cost, whichever is smaller.

Several utilities in Texas offer excellent rebates for home solar power systems. So residents in most any major city in the state, as well as those in outlying areas, probably fall under some kind of program. And most of these programs are very lucrative, although many are still in the pilot phase and underfunded. One program from TNMP offers up to $25,000 to residential customers, but only has a $90,000 budget for 2009.

Dallas residents who live within Oncor Energy’s service area are eligible for $2.46/watt up to $24,600 for a new home solar power system. Oncor also offers a rather unique solar hot water rebate that pays $230+$0.38/kWh for systems installed on existing homes, and $214+$0.35/kWh for new construction. Dallas also has a city-mandated green building initiative that requires LEED-Silver certification for all new municipal buildings over 10,000 square feet and LEED-Gold certification for all Public Works and Transportation facilities.

While Texas may not seem like the state to live in for home solar power, many of the state’s utilities, led by Austin Energy, are picking up the slack. Austin may be the greenest city in Texas, but the sun shines healthily everywhere. Texans, be sure to investigate what your utility offers for home solar power. Austin is definitely not alone in pushing solar power and on the whole, the utility-brokered incentives are amazing, but the program budgets aren’t.

Right now, home solar power is lonely in the Lone Star State. It’s up to Texans (and their sluggish representives) to make it feel at home.

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