By Iris Dimmick

Solar panels are sprouting up all over San Antonio – especially in the local architectural community. Overland Partners is the most recent addition to the trend, confirming a plan last night with Freedom Solar Power to install a 30 kilowatt (kW) solar array at the firm’s new River North location at Jones Street and Avenue B.

Overland Partners sees the installation and their upcoming move as a “catalyst of transformation in the neighborhood,” said Principal Jim Shelton, “To set an example – model how we should sustainably develop and move forward in the city.”

The new location and solar array is on track for Overland Partners to move in just after Thanksgiving. The project will be one of the most visible solar arrays downtown.

“Everyone driving down (Highway) 281 should be able to see it,” Shelton said.

Freedom Solar Power, based in Austin, is not the only company that installs solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in San Antonio (See: Solar Community, CAM Solar, Solar Conduit). However, while the company has installed hundreds of residential and commercial solar arrays in Austin and San Antonio, it is also focusing its marketing efforts on local architectural firms.

It seems like a good marketing plan: by getting architects to install solar panels, those firms become more knowledgeable about the processes and technology, which makes them better at selling solar power to clients, which leads to more business for Freedom Solar Power. On paper, the company does what it does to make money.

But it’s more than marketing. This strategy is also a part of a deeper, environmental effort to spread the word about solar and reduce fossil fuel consumption. Architectural firms are, by definition, designing our future residential and commercial spaces and therefore need to be familiar with energy efficient technologies that the local, state, and federal governments endorse.

Shelbi Lyn Jary and Margo Robertson, Freedom Solar’s local sales team, have begun to corner that market within just six months of launching operations here. Overland Partners is the fourth architectural firm to sign on.

“It’s been an honor to work with such prestigious firms,” Jary said, “In my opinion, San Antonio has the best architectural community in Texas.”

More firms are lining up, waiting to be officially approved for rebates by CPS this month.

“There is so much business for solar here.” Robertson said, “We’re booked for three months.”

Lake/Flato architectural firm has been enjoying their 10 kW solar array, installed by Freedom Solar Power, since late August.

The 10 kW solar array at Lake/Flato. Photo courtesy of Brantley Hightower, AIA, LEED AP at Lake/Flato.

Robertson said that the main obstacles to installation downtown are the shadows of surrounding buildings and in neighborhoods, of course, it’s trees. Most of the time an optimal place can be found, but the capacity may be fewer kW than desired – as with Lake/Flato’s array.

Heather Gayle Holdridge, sustainability coordinator, said that Lake/Flato had been looking into installing solar panels years ago, but “the numbers never really worked out.”

Now that the price of PV panels has fallen, the return on investment was finally high enough to invest, she said.

“We just jumped on it,” Holdridge said, “The more that we can do at our office, the easier it is to talk to clients (about solar) … practice what we preach.”

Lake/Flato, among other local firms, has won several awards for energy efficient design and can now use their own array as an example to prospective clients.

“As a demonstration project, it’s been wonderful,” Holdridge said, “Now we fully understand the technology,” and can talk to clients about solar with confidence.

Working under a cloudless sky, a team of five men from Freedom Solar Power were precariously traversing the angled roof of Alamo Architects last Wednesday. They worked over several days to install a total of 198 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. The 48 kW solar array – enough to power about 12 homes – is approximately 100 feet long and spans the entire length of the firm’s industrial office space on South Flores Street.

“If you could save 30 per cent of your utility bill for the next 20 years,” said Alamo Architects Principal Mike McGlone, “Why would you not do that?”

McGlone said that the timing was economically perfect when Freedom Solar Power pitched the solar project  – “a good, clean, convincing case,” – to the firm earlier this year.

The Freedom Solar Power crew at Alamo Architects. Photo by Iris Dimmick

San Antonio homes and commercial structures have acquired a lot of small-scale solar array in the past few years, mainly because of the CPS Energy’s  Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP) initiative of 2009 that includes an attractive rebate program for solar installments (among other energy efficiency appliances and retrofitting). Residential and commercial customers alike are eligible for the CPS rebate and for a 30 per cent tax credit from the federal government. These incentives, on top of lowering the cost of the PV panels themselves over the past few years, has broadened the economic viability of solar power to smaller customers.

Taking advantage of all these incentives, however, is not an easy task for the average citizen. Freedom Solar Power advertises itself as a turnkey service; taking on the permitting and qualifying paperwork, design, and installation of its arrays so that the customer doesn’t have to.

Bret Biggart, director of business development at Freedom Solar Power, says this turnkey service is one of the most important pieces to their success.

“The (permitting) process is a headache for the customer,” Biggart said, “We bear the brunt of it so it’s easier to understand.”

As was the case for Alamo Architects: “The most complicated thing we’ve had to do is move a couple cars around,” McGlone said, “It’s been effortless for us.”

McGlone is reasonably cautious to estimate how long it will take the panels to pay for themselves by lowering their utility bill. The rebate policy cut the total cost of the Alamo Architect array in half, down to $100,000.

“With rose-colored glasses, (the payback rate) is in the seven-to-eight-year range, but the difficulty in projecting that is the volatile utility rate,” McGlone said.

At maximum, McGlone estimates it will take about 10 years to see a return on investment (ROI), which is progress.  The same project ten years ago would have taken about fifteen years.

The 48 kW array at Alamo Architects. Photo courtesy of Adrian Buck Founder and Chief Installation Officer of Freedom Solar Power

“The time to install is now – before the (CPS) rebate runs out,” said Jary, “For a utility to be giving these rebates is really forward thinking of them … San Antonio has one of the better (utilities).”

According to CPS Director of Communications Lisa Lewis, out of the STEP initiative’s initial $856 million fund, CPS has $10 million in rebates for solar projects during the current fiscal year alone. So far about $8 million worth of rebates has been earmarked.

At the current rate of projects initiated, $2 million may not be enough to last through Jan 31 – but there will be a new, larger allotment next fiscal year. When first proposed, STEP funds were supposed to last until 2020.

Things have since changed, said Lewis in an email: “We are moving the dollars that were planned through 2020 up into the next few years, increasing the money currently available, but eliminating the rebate in the later years, as the solar industry becomes more self-sustaining.”

For more information:

Energy Savers: CPS

Solar Programs: US Department of Energy | Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

Solar Power World: Notes from Solar Power International: Top 10 Residential Financing Mistakes

Also of interest:

Under The Roof: How Households Decide To Install PV by Varun Rai, Director, Energy Systems Transformation Research Group at University of Texas at Austin

DESIRE: Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency

Marketwatch: Solar Community installs solar system on San Antonio Porsche Dealership 

San Antonio Business Journal: CPS Finalizes Solar Deal that Promises 800 Jobs 

Renewable Energy World: National Renewable Energy Labratory study compares energy sources from cradle to grave

More from the Rivard Report:

CPS Energy, like Rackspace and other San Antonio Companies, Tells Its Own Stories

Peak Energy Demand: Is Solar the Solution?

New to the Rivard Report and San Antonio, Iris Dimmick graduated from Central Washington University with a B.A. in journalism with an emphasis on online media and energy studies. Iris currently works as an intern reporter, photographer, and assistant web editor for the Rivard Report. You can follow her on Twitter @viviris

Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group conducted a four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications. This disclosure was published Sept. 26, 2013 in response to an Express-News inquiry.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com