Williamson County

Central Texas city wants to pay people to install solar panels

GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) - A central Texas town that already uses 100 percent renewable energy is working out a plan to generate more electricity locally so it can stop buying power to meet demand.

The city of Georgetown wants to start paying property owners to let the city-owned utility install solar panels on their roofs and feed the energy into the broader power grid. The money would come either in the form of lease payments or royalties paid to eligible residential and commercial property owners.

"I think it's a very exciting chance," Bob Weimer said. He lives in Sun City and said when he heard about the proposal, he immediately contacted city leaders to say he wants to be a part of it. 

"This is just a normal, natural step for us to become and stay one of the greener cities in Texas," said Weimer, who doesn't currently have solar panels.

The city mapped out every property in its jurisdiction and cataloged how much sun each one gets. City leaders sent the resulting map as part of a grant application to Bloomberg Philanthropies, which selected Georgetown as one of 35 "champion cities" in its 2018 Mayors Challenge, "a nationwide competition that encourages city leaders to uncover bold, inventive ideas that confront the toughest problems cities face," according to the contest's website.

Georgetown got $100,000 from the competition to plan out and refine their project, which they're calling a "virtual power plant." Later this year all the finalists will resubmit their ideas and will compete to win four $1 million prizes and one $5 million grand prize.

"Our folks in the electric utility have been kicking this idea around for a few years," Jack Daly, assistant to the city manager, told KXAN. The Mayors Challenge was a good opportunity to jumpstart the project with grant money, he said.

One-hundred percent of Georgetown's energy already comes from renewable sources, Daly said, but that includes a wind farm in the panhandle and a solar farm in west Texas. "We were thinking, 'Boy, instead of being regulated by the state grid and relying on transmitting energy long distances, wouldn't it be cool if we made all our power here in Georgetown?'"

It won't mean free energy for city residents, or even a reduction in energy bills, Daly said. What it will provide is price stability so costs are more predictable. 

As part of the refining process over the coming months, Daly and utility leaders will work out how to go about paying for roof space and how much it's worth. 

Even if Georgetown doesn't win any more money from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the project will continue to move forward, Daly said. The additional grant funding would provide a faster path, but without it, the city will use utility payments from anticipated growth in its customer base to fund it over the coming years.

"As the city grows we would have to invest in new generation to continue to supply additional power," Daly said. "The virtual power plant is an alternative form of generation."

Not everyone will be eligible to get panels; the selection process will be based on the solar radiation map. Property owners whose homes or businesses don't see enough sun to qualify can still take part in the project, Daly said, by storing a battery backup to help on cloudy days. 

Weimer's house would qualify for panels, based on the map. His roof gets significant sunlight on at least two sides. He's hopeful he can get the city's help installing them so that he can help future generations.

"I have little grandchildren and I’d like to be able to see them grow up with good clean air," he said. "And I want to be a part of the growth of that."

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