Solar energy is hot in Texas — what to know before you buy

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As both temperatures and solar energy demands heat up in Austin, Austin Energy and local providers are advising residents on best practices and questions to ask as prospective customers of solar energy.

Nationally, solar installations in the first quarter of 2021 increased 46% year-over-year compared to Q1 2020, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association. An SEIA market insight report listed Texas as the second highest state for solar electric capacity, with more than 9,000 megawatts of solar capacity statewide — equivalent to over one million Texas homes running the renewable energy resource.

While Austin Energy officials say they welcome increased interest in solar energy use, they also forewarned against the prevalence of installation concerns and misleading information surrounding renewable energy usage and costs.

“The worst thing that can happen to you as a customer is that you enter in to this big solar installation, that’s expensive with the expectation that the amount of solar that you generate is going to completely offset your bill,” said Sara Norris, Austin Energy’s program manager in environmental conservation. “And then you end up with both a loan, which can even be a lien against your house, and still having some energy bills.”

There are 212 green building single-family projects in the greater Austin area, according to Austin Energy data. Green buildings are defined by Austin Energy as those that promote sustainability in the areas of “energy efficiency, water efficiency, materials, site, indoor environmental quality, community impact and innovation.”

There are also 197 multifamily projects noted as green buildings, per the dataset. Austin Energy data documents 58 city buildings and facilities solar power as part of its operations.

To help combat some of the confusion and misinformation surrounding solar installations, Austin Energy developed Solar 101, an educational course on alternative energy. Course information includes where to install solar panels on a home, variations in annual energy usage and federal tax credit incentives.

Norris credits the program in helping to reduce the number of issues reported to Austin Energy by prospective customers approached by faulty sellers.

“I actually feel that in the time that I’ve been with Austin Energy, which is about three years that we’ve had a reduction in claims put out there. So, even as we see the solar market growing, I think that more and more of our customers are aware of the resources that we’ve put out there,” she said. “The best weapon against the bad solar contractor is a well-informed populace.”

Paul Watson serves as chief strategy officer of Austin-based Native Solar. Solar companies can serve as one, or all, of the following: solar seller organizations, solar installers and solar maintenance and operations.

Watson said his concerns with increased solar interest is the rise of strictly seller companies that contract out installation services. By contracting out services, he said his primary concern is the lack of ownership and communication some seller companies take on once a contract is signed and the remainder of the work is in the installation contractor’s hands.

Following Winter Storm Uri, solar interest increased statewide, with more people looking into prospective alternative energy resources. A July 2021 renewable energy market update from the International Energy Agency noted historic energy demands during the February storm, at levels typically seen in the summertime.

In Texas, cold weather simultaneously drove record demand and reduced availability of generation capacity. Texas households rely on a higher proportion of electric resistance heating than most US
states and home efficiency standards are geared towards cooling rather than heating needs. As a result, the impact of cold temperatures was magnified, leading to demand forecasts 20% higher than expected winter peaks, and close to record demand, which historically occurs during the summer.

International Energy Agency, Renewable Energy Market Update

While he said he’s happy more people have taken interest in alternative energy resources, he said companies that have sprouted up since the storm might not be as transparent with their service promises.

“When there’s uncertainty in your electricity, which is a vital component of many of our lives, you see an increased demand for that,” he said, adding: “What we’re witnessing is an increased propensity of these organizations that come in here and set up a shop. They can set up an LLC, they have no office, but they have a logo, they have a shirt and they have a little notepad or an iPad, and they come knock at your door.”

One point Norris stressed is the relationship between solar energy systems and the statewide energy grid. For solar-powered homes interconnected in the grid system, those homes are not immune to electricity loss if there is another grid failure similar to February’s storm.

“Unfortunately, power when the grid is down is not [a benefit] we are able to provide,” she said. “But fortunately, in Austin Energy — the snowpocalypse aside — we have incredible grid reliability compared to most of the grid in the country.”

Signing onto solar energy systems is a multitiered process that begins with the initial package signing and ends with a final utility inspection, Watson said. One area of improvement industry-wide, he added, is the length of the process, which can take a couple of months from start to finish.

After signing a contract. installers will create an official engineer-stamped design for the system, which will then be submitted to local utility departments as a permit. Following permitting approval comes installation, with homes dependent on inspector approval prior to use.

“You get the check mark, then you’re connected — then you’re interconnected,” he said. “So the process is not overnight — this is where we’re seeing another point of lack of communication, is many people do not communicate that this might take a couple of months to get actually energized before you’re connected.”

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