San Antonio held on to its rankings as No. 1 in Texas and No. 7 in the U.S. for solar capacity in 2015, according to a report released Wednesday by Environment America. While its rank remains the same as last year, San Antonio is keeping pace with national solar leaders by increasing its capacity by 23%, from 88 megawatts to 108 MW in 2015.
If those numbers sound way too low to those that follow the local solar industry – that's because in a way they are.
The report only counts capacity inside city limits, which limits the perspective, but balances out other variables for an even comparison across the country, Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger said during a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday. The advocacy organization's Research & Policy Center releases its "Shining Cities" report every year.
"We're looking to somehow factor (solar installed outside of city limits) into our rankings next year," Metzger said. "This is the way we could do an apples-to-apples comparison and no matter how you look at it, San Antonio's doing pretty great."
By the end of 2016, CPS Energy will add about 265 MW of solar to its arsenal of 230 MW through its commercial solar projects and rooftop solar programming, said CPS Energy Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy Rudy Garza.
"We'll use these talking points (and statistics) going forward because we want to make sure that our community and customers know that we're doing the very best that we can do to try to make progress," Garza said. "Not everybody wants solar, but we're doing it in a way that gives everyone solar, whether they think about it or not."
Alamo 5, CPS Energy's 100 MW-plus commercial solar farm in Uvalde, recently came online and joined CPS Energy's other Alamo solar farm projects. SolarHost, a pilot program that installs solar panels for free, reached its capacity soon after it was launched, with demand quickly exceeding supply. Running slightly behind its scheduled deployment, the community, or "roofless," solar pilot will be online later this year for CPS Energy customers that can't afford solar installation, or have homes or businesses unsuitable for solar installation.
About 572 people are now employed in the solar industry in Bexar County, according to the Solar Foundation. Several manufacturing companies that make components for solar installations have set up shop in recent years creating a solar energy hub including Mission Solar, OCI Solar Power, Silver Springs Network, KACO, and more.
CPS Energy isn't sure what its solar rebate program will look like beyond the $30 million boost it received in December from the reallocation of Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan funds, Garza said, but the utility will continue to work with local solar installation industry for a plan forward.
In Texas, costs for installed solar systems have plummeted in recent years, decreasing by 80% since 2009, and similar numbers can be found nationwide. This is the very intention of rebate programs – to subsidize the solar industry until costs come down low enough to compete with fossil fuels. The federal tax rebate program expires at the end of 2016, a program many solar industry advocates want to extend until 2022. Texas does not have a state rebate program.
"We try to match our programs up with the market," Garza said. "I can't tell you if rebates in the future will go away. ... We're trying to make this particular bucket of money last as long as it can possibly last."
Starting in February, the rebate dropped from $1.60 per watt to $1.20. This rate will continue until the first $10 million worth of solar rebates is spent. The next $10 million will be at $1 per watt, and the last $10 million at $0.80 per watt.
"That really got us moving in a direction we could sustain," Garza said. "I would expect us to continue to support this industry even when this $30 million is used up."
CPS Energy has only just begun issuing rebates at the $1.20 rate and are still processing the influx of applications sparked by the rebate extension, he added. "We didn't have the infrastructure in place to get on those applications as quickly as we needed to."
Ben Rodriguez represents the San Antonio Solar Installers Alliance, a coalition of local solar installation companies that, for now, depend on the rebate program. It was Rodriguez who brought the step-down rebate model, Garza said.
"A cohesion has developed between (CPS Energy) and industry leaders," Rodriguez said. "The goal is to get the industry and the market to the point where a rebate is no longer needed."
It's these initiatives that keep San Antonio shining as a solar city, Metzger said, and it's cities that are at the vanguard of the nation’s solar boom. The report also found that the top 20 solar cities account for 6% of U.S. solar capacity while representing just 0.1% of land area.
Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix were the top-ranked cities on the list, hosting 215, 189, and 147 MW of solar capacity respectively. These cities, as well as Austin, which trails San Antonio on the list at No. 13 with 33 MW, have their own installed and planned projects outside of city limits.
Out of CPS Energy's approximately 7,000 MW energy portfolio, only a small sliver, 500 MW is solar. Wind accounts for about 11% while solar is just over 1% of total generation. Natural gas (26.3%), nuclear (29.6%), and coal (29.2%) still dominate.
"Capacity wise (solar and other renewables) may not be a big number, but when it's there and it's available we take it first," Garza said.
There's more that San Antonio can do to boost its solar footprint, too, Metzger said, especially for commercial rooftops that are often larger and have access to more capital. Environment Texas is advocating for the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program approved by the Texas Legislature in 2013.
PACE provides property owners with financing for 100% of the cost of permanent water and energy improvements such as solar panels, HVAC upgrades, waste water recovery, and more. The property owner can then pay back the debt through their property taxes.
"It's a real great way for people who might not be able to afford $20,000 upfront for solar to be able to install it," Metzger said. "Other states actually allow residential properties, too."
It hasn't caught on in Bexar County, but the advocacy organization has reported success from retailers in Travis, Harris, and Willacy counties.
President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, now stalled in the U.S. Supreme Court, will also help add to the momentum of solar and other renewable energy sources by putting caps on carbon pollution and providing incentives for clean energy.
"We expect it (the Clean Power Plan) ultimately to prevail," Metzger said. "In the meantime thought we def think cities should continue to step up and make investments in solar like San Antonio has been doing."
Top image: Thomas Kim of Mission Solar Energy explains the benefit of solar power to San Antonio resident Mike Bursheim during the 2015 Solar Fest. Photo by Scott Ball.