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Let the solar shine in

0912
 2018


The cost of installing solar panels has steadily fallen in the past decade, and by the end of 2017, investment in solar arrays in Texas exceeded $3.2 billion, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Bluebonnet does not provide or install solar panels, but information about the process is available on our website, bluebonnet.coop. Click on the Energy Solutions tab, then on Home Renewables & Green Rates. Photo by Sarah Beal

By WILL HOLFORD

Solar power is booming in Texas. The Lone Star State ranked seventh in the nation in 2017, with 1,973 megawatts of installed solar energy capacity. That’s up from 10th in 2015, when the state was producing a mere 540 megawatts.

Much of the state’s solar power capacity is being captured by utility-scale solar farms that can produce more than 100 megawatts of power. On a smaller scale, large companies are installing solar arrays on their rooftops or property. Some of those businesses’ systems can produce more than 2 megawatts, enough to power about 400 homes during peak demand hours.
 
Residential installations also are increasing, including in Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative’s service area. As of July, Bluebonnet had 521 members with solar arrays; 66 were added in 2016 and 138 in 2017. The cooperative estimates it will have about 650 installations by the end of 2018, nearly all on homes.
 
Travis County resident Jerry Douglas recently upgraded the solar array on his home between Elgin and Manor. In 2016, he installed solar panels capable of producing up to 3 kilowatts. He and his wife were so pleased that in June they added enough panels to produce another 5 kilowatts. Douglas, who has worked for more than 30 years in the electric utility industry, estimates the system will reduce his electric bills by $220 per month during the summer.
 
“We like it cool,” Douglas said from his air-conditioned living room as he used a mobile app to monitor how much power his panels were generating at 4 p.m. on a triple-digit day in July.
 
“I looked at the cost of wind compared to solar and just couldn’t justify the wind turbine,” he said. “Also, there’s a lot of maintenance with a wind turbine. There is little or none with solar panels, and (the system) is covered by a warranty. If something goes wrong, I call and they come out to fix it.”
 
In July, Texans set several records for hourly peak demand for energy. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the electric grid for most of the state, recorded power demand on July 19 topping 73,000 megawatts for the first time.
 
Solar power producers are big fans of the summer sun. When energy demand peaks in the afternoons because of soaring temperatures, solar arrays are generating power, offsetting  the need for electricity from traditional power plants that rely on coal or natural gas. 
 
Residential solar projects usually generate between 5 and 10 kilowatts. A 5-kilowatt system has about 15 photovoltaic solar panels, covering about 500 square feet. The average residential solar installation on Bluebonnet’s electric grid can generate 7.5 kilowatts. The photovoltaic solar panels can go on roofs or on ground-mounted steel supports. They have a 20- to 25-year lifespan and are owned by the property or business owner.
 
John Gardner, a retired electrical engineer, who lives near Brenham in Washington County, has installed solar on his last three homes. His current system has 25 290-watt panels capable of producing up to 7.25 kilowatts of electricity. That is more than enough to power his energy-efficient 2,000-square-foot home. “We’re basically net zero on our electric bills,” Gardner said.
 
Bluebonnet members with a renewable energy system connected to the co-op’s electric grid have dual-register meters that record how much power they take from Bluebonnet and how much power they contribute to the grid.
 
Bluebonnet pays its members for energy they put into its grid at a rate based on costs from the co-op’s wholesale power providers and any cost savings from the transmission and distribution of power.
 
“Bluebonnet has been solar friendly for sure,” Gardner said. “The process is easy, and it’s always good to have friendly people.”
 
The cost of installing a residential solar array is dropping. Cost varies from one city to another and from one utility to another. It depends on many factors. Like many electric cooperatives, Bluebonnet does not offer rebates to members who install renewable generation systems. That is because Bluebonnet’s revenue comes from its members when they pay their electric bills. Any rebate the co-op might offer would have to benefit or provide value to all co-op members, rather than just those who have wind turbines or solar arrays.
 
However, Bluebonnet members who install solar panels benefit from a 30 percent federal tax credit that Congress extended through 2019. The credit drops to 26 percent in 2020 and 22 percent in 2021, the last year it will be available for residential solar under current federal plans.
 
With the experience of having had multiple solar installations, Gardner and Douglas have learned what to look for when considering solar power companies and the do’s and don’ts of installing panels. They advise would-be buyers to find a reputable company to design their solar power system, and to get two or three quotes from installers. Check their references, too.
 
Communication is also important. “Do you understand what they’re telling you?” Gardner said. “If not, find someone else.” 



Will Solar Work on my roof?

Before placing solar panels on your roof, ask yourself these questions from the Smart Electric Power Alliance:

  • What is the condition of the roof? How old is it, and what repairs does it need?
  • Do building codes allow solar panels? There may be roof setback requirements and fire safety considerations.
  • n What direction does the roof face, and what kind of slope does it have? Most solar panels should face south or southwest.
  • If your house is in a historic district or another area with building or homeowner association restrictions, are solar panels allowed where you want them?
  • Does your roof get too much shade? If so, a rooftop system likely won’t provide much power.

 


Community solar: A neighborly option

Community solar projects allow people whose homes are not suitable for solar panels, or who live in condominiums, townhomes or apartments, to share the costs and benefits of a neighborhood solar installation. Community solar agreements vary, but typically the energy that the panels produce is distributed among participating residents. Likewise, participants share proceeds from the sale of excess energy returned to the electric grid.  — Will Holford


 

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