CPS Energy plans to have a new community solar facility online and available to all its customers in the San Antonio area this fall. The installation will have 11,200 panels spread across 10 acres. One of its unique features is that the panels will be mounted on movable frames that will allow them to track the sun during the day. That should boost output by 15% over traditional fixed panel systems. Total system output is projected at 1.2 megawatts.
Rooftop solar is great, in theory. Instead of letting sunlight that is hitting our roofs do nothing more than heat up our shingles, a rooftop solar system can take that same solar energy and use it to generate electricity. 20 years ago, solar panels were prohibitively expensive, but new technology and manufacturing techniques soon slashed the cost.
Even still, the cost of a rooftop solar system was large enough that creative financing models were needed to pay for them. Conventional lenders were skeptical of the new systems and refused to lend money to finance them. 5 years ago, companies like SolarCity devised leasing programs to make rooftop solar accessible to more families. Recently, no-money-down purchase options have become available.
But barriers still remained. People who wanted a rooftop solar system still had to navigate a permitting process that could be confusing and arbitrary. Leases and purchase agreements often interfered with the ability to sell a home without a lot of extra legal expense and hassle.
Many conventional, investor-owned utility companies have resisted the wave of new rooftop solar systems, claiming they would destabilize the electrical grid. In reality, however, they are more afraid of losing customers and therefore revenue than anything else. Their response to rooftop solar has been to punish homeowners who installed solar panels on their homes with burdensome monthly surcharges.
There are relatively few municipal utility companies in America, but those that do exist look at the market for electricity differently than investor-owned utilities. The municipal systems follow a much more service-oriented approach that does not need to satisfy bond holders.
Currently working on contracting with a third party to install solar panels, free of charge to its customers, CPS Energy is gearing up for its new “Rent the Roof” solar program in San Antonio, Texas. The pilot program, set to launch in mid-2015, is still in the request-for-proposals (RFP) phase, evaluating contractor proposals for installing the solar rooftop panels.
CPS Energy Also Offers Enough Rent “To Get People Interested”
Raiford Smith, vice president of corporate development and planning at CPS Energy, speaking to KSAT12 Reporter Jenna Hiller, explained, “We have this purchase power agreement where essentially we will contract with a third party to install solar panels, essentially at no charge to the customer.”
Around 300-400 homes are expected to be signed up for the one megawatt solar energy generation pilot program. San Antonio resident Oscar Samano told Hiller that he would sign up for the CPS Energy program, “if he could avoid the roughly $30,000 cost of installing panels on his own.” Samano related, “I have a large awning and a large roof. It’s a three-bedroom house.” He continued, “We don’t have room for the wind turbines, so solar panels would be the best project.”
In exchange for a contract with CPS Energy to buy the output for the 15-year expected lifetime of solar panels, homeowners will receive free installation, and a monthly rent payment in the form of a credit on their CPS Energy bill. Although it has not yet been determined how much “rent payment” customers will receive, the utility company has said “it would be enough to get people interested.”
Planned Growth to 50MW Community Rooftop Solar
Since 2007, reports CPS Energy, just over 20MW solar generation has already been installed on San Antonio home and business rooftops. “We’re excited about the prospect of increasing the amount of rooftop solar in our service territory by making it available to more customers.” said Cris Eugster, executive vice president and chief generation and strategy officer. If successful, the 1MW community rooftop pilot program will be expanded to 25 or even 50 MW over the next few years.
Anita Ledbetter, interim executive director of Solar San Antonio and executive director of Build San Antonio Green said, “This program has the potential to bring solar power to the rooftops of people who couldn’t afford it before.” Ledbetter continued, “CPS Energy is our utility. It’s owned by us, the people of San Antonio. And the idea of our utility putting solar on our people’s rooftops, instead of building another centralized power plant – it’s a very exciting thing, and Solar San Antonio is very supportive.”