Myra Garcia fills a room with positive energy. Anyone caught inside with her can instantly sense her warm and welcoming presence, despite the chronic back pain she still suffers from as a result of a car accident several years ago. She shared her passion for helping others through her work, schooling, and personal life with several guests who visited her home Wednesday, while the thump of footsteps and sound of tools scraping were heard overhead. Crews were hard at work on Garcia's roof bringing a very different kind of energy into her Southside home.
SolarHostSA has received more than 4,000 applications since it started accepting them in September, an overwhelming response to a new CPS Energy pilot program that plans to install 10 megawatts (MW) of solar rooftop solar panels in San Antonio by the end of 2016. Officials estimate that will mean about 850 residential and 50 commercial roofs will receive the panels, free of charge to their owners.
Garcia, whose home lies several blocks south of SW Military Drive, was the very first customer selected for the program. The crew from local installer Renewable Republic will wrap up the residential installation of the 32-panel, 8.32 kw array on Thursday.
"I'm honored to be the first," she said. "I could never afford solar panels ... now I get to save that money for something for my grandchildren."
Under the program, customers "host" panels that are installed and maintained for free and owned by a private, Texas-based solar developer, PowerFin Partners. PowerFin will pay customers $0.03 per kWh generated by their panels and then sell the energy to CPS Energy.
PowerFin estimates that Garcia will receive a $40-50 monthly discount on her CPS Energy bill, more than the average program participant should expect to receive because Garcia's array is larger than the average 4kw, 16-panel installation. Her roof is large and in good condition, orientated toward the sun, and free of shade from nearby structures and trees.
Applications to take part in SolarHostSA are reviewed with exactly those criteria in mind: Roof orientation, shade, and condition/age. A third consideration, said PowerFin Vice President Jason Pittman, is finding homes in neighborhoods that are "solar deserts" where there are no neighbors with solar.
"It's about accessibility to solar and it's affordability," Pittman said. "Cost is the main barrier to bringing solar to the entire community. This program eliminates it (for the consumer)."
The program isn't specifically targeted towards low- or middle-income customers, but typically they are the ones that live in solar deserts and cannot afford to participate in incentive programs that offer solar credit and state or federal installation rebates. The average five-kilowatt rooftop system costs about $9,000. That’s after local production (net metering) and state/federal tax rebates – all of which have expiration dates in the coming years.
"We can't all move forward until we move everybody forward," said Build San Antonio Green/Solar San Antonio Executive Director Anita Ledbetter who has been working with PowerFin on the program. "There has been a lot of people left out or unable to participate in the sustainability movement."
Eight more residential systems will be installed this month, starting with Southside neighborhoods and then expanding to other areas of the city. PowerFin has contracted with 10 different solar installation companies to complete the substantial workload scheduled for 2016. Commercial installations are expected to begin in February. CPS Energy customers can still apply for the program here. Only 60 applications have been cleared for installation so far.
Solar hosting and the coming "Roofless Solar" program, also known as "community solar," will let customers lease panels in a commercial-scale array to receive discounts on their electricity bill, are both part of CPS Energy's larger initiative to increase consumption of renewable energy and support the green economy. These programs give customers like Garcia a chance to participate in that economy – whether their interest is sustainability, financial, or educational.
For Garcia, it's a combination of all three.
"I see the world very differently now that I have two grandkids," she said. "We're supposed to make things better for them."
She hopes to invite children from the surrounding Harlandale Independent School District to come to her home on a field trip to see the panels up close and learn about how they work. The district's STEM programming introduces students to careers in different industries every day, she said, including renewable energy.
"You can see it on TV (and in textbooks) ... but it's different when it's in your neighborhood," said Garcia, a former Harlandale ISD board trustee. "There is so much coming out of (the SolarHostSA program)."
Far more than a free solar array.
Ledbetter was moved to tears as Garcia shared her deep connection and appreciation for the staff and opportunity to participate in the program.
"I get emotional about it because when you work so hard for so long on something ... and then see all of your work resonate with someone ... it's a dream," Ledbetter said afterwards. "All of this education and all of this system design over the years is for Myra."
Garcia, who has lived in her Southside home for more than 30 years, raised four daughters there. She and more than 100 employees lost their jobs with San Antonio Baptist Health System in 2011 when the hospital network downsized its workforce. Garcia took the opportunity to go back to school for nursing. She graduated last year, but not before suffering a serious back injury.
"I finished school in a lot of pain," she said.
Garcia has taken this year off to rest and regain mobility. The time off has allowed her to focus on her home, she said, which has been freshly painted and has a new concrete driveway. She's always looking for deals and discounts, so she signed up for landscaping coupons from SAWS and participated in CPS Energy's weatherization program, Casa Verde.
"If there's a free program or coupon in the city, I've signed up for it," she said, laughing. When she stumbled upon a sign-up page for SolarHostSA in early October, she did it with barely a thought.
"I honestly forgot about it," she said. When she didn't hear back from them for several weeks, "I thought it was a scam."
But then SolarHostSA Customer Service Liaison Kate Schubert notified Garcia that her home qualified for a roof inspection. A few weeks later she received a call from Schubert with the news she had been selected to receive the first installation.
At first Garcia was concerned about the contract length and liability. Pittman reviewed the 20-year contract with her, explaining that PowerFin assumed all risk and would take care of all installation and maintenance costs. The panels stay with the house in the unlikely event Garcia decides to move. The system adds value to the house. Garcia's only liability is having to pay labor costs if she ever wants the system removed.
"In the evolution of sustainability in this town," Ledbetter said, "we talked about conservation that's the (low-hanging fruit), then we moved into energy efficiency, and now we're in the dawn of new technology coming live to everyone's homes. ... All of this so we can be more resilient as a city."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that a SolarHost customer would have to pay for the life of the contract if they opt to remove the panels. The story has been updated to reflect that a customer would only have to cover the labor costs involved with removal.
*Top image: (From left) Installation team Carlos Abad, Fanny Reyes, Supratim Srinivasan, and Eduardo Casilda look on as Luis Medellin works on the roof. Photo by Scott Ball.